My Personal Grocery Challenge

I mentioned the grocery challenge in my last post and actually wasn’t sure I was even going to blog about it, but I feel like it might change the content here a bit, so it’s worth mentioning.

I’ve never really been a week by week meal planner. I tend to gravitate towards the same products each week, buy the same proteins, lots of fresh veggies, fruit, dairy and make meals on the fly based on how much I have going on after work.

My grocery list is magnetic and stored on the front of the fridge (So 1980) – if we run out of something, it goes on the list.  I just take the list off the fridge, add items out of the ordinary to the list on my iPhone reminders or shopping list app (So 2012) and off to the store I go.

I use cookbooks, magazines, blogs and other websites to get ideas for my blog, party and family recipes. What I don’t often do is pay attention to the ingredients and whether or not I have the items on hand. Re-buying things I already have, spending more on organic, getting caught up in putting things in the cart because I’ve never tried them or they look appetizing. Cravings get me every single time. Go to the store when you aren’t hungry… yes, yes, I know.

Some people shop at the mall, nope… I hit up my favorite grocery stores. Nugget, Trader Joe’s, The Co-op, Sprouts, Whole Foods, Bel Air…. none of those (with maybe the exception of TJ’s) has the cheapest prices on things. My problem with TJ’s is that I geek out on all of the new products and next thing you know, my cart is full of so many food options that some even go bad before I get to try them. I act like I need food for 5-6 meals a day, when I pretty much stick to the standard 3 meals with an afternoon snack. I buy WAY too much for 1.5 people. I count Dan as a 1/2 because the only meal he eats at home M-F is dinner and 1/2 the time that’s just cereal or something frozen. I eat 3 meals a day – 5 days a week at home and then we basically eat out 1-2 meals every weekend.

I rarely shop the ads, I don’t use coupons, I sometimes take advantage of the farmer’s markets – but even with those, I have no self control. I’m like a 5 year old on Christmas morning. Fava beans… yes, I can figure out something to do with those. Fresh dates… yes, those would be great on salad. OMG!, I’ve never seen purple cabbage…artichokes the size of my head…oh wait, I must buy myself some fresh flowers. Next thing you know, I have enough produce to feed the entire neighborhood and enough flowers to decorate a wedding.

That all changed this month. I went back a year and logged my monthly grocery spending. Wow, what a complete wake up call. It was easy to track because I use the same form of payment for all groceries. Some of the numbers are totally inflated due to me purchasing garbage bags, sandwich bags, foil, paper towels, toilet paper, tissue, band-aids, Advil, etc. AT THE GROCERY STORE. They LOVE people like me. I always used the excuse that I have a busy schedule, my time is more important than driving around to 10 different stores. First world problems for sure. I even annoy myself sometimes.

We do entertain at least one night of every weekend. If we aren’t entertaining, we are bringing food to a friend’s place for a BBQ or other event. I always provide most of the food when hosting, but that changed this month… I started to ask people to bring stuff to save money. Everybody has always offered, I just usually replied with – I got it covered.

I dug through my junk drawer and broke out my club cards. I looked at the ads I usually tossed and made a plan. I knew in some cases I was probably going to have to brand switch, but I tried to keep that to a minimum.

I set out to “date” a bunch of different “new to me” grocery stores. My first date would let me know whether we were going to be compatible or not. If they didn’t carry a lot of my normal items, I’d move on to the next date/store.

Costco didn’t make the cut.  I have no self control. I’ve never walked out of there without extra crap – including jeans, shorts, bathing suits, books and booze.

By searching the ads and online sales, I found eggs for 69 cents. Not my usual brand, but that was o.k. I found super cheap stone fruit… yay for it being in season.

I did a bunch of research and heard and read over and over again that the average family of 4 spends about $170/week on groceries. I took a poll with friends with families and it seemed to be in that general range. Some were much lower at $75-$100/week, others were more in the $150 range, but they did admit to mid week stops for several items they forgot or needed for baseball or soccer snacks, Girl Scout/Boy Scout meetings and other activities.

If the average family of 4 is spending $170/week – $680/month, a single person’s budget would be $42.50/week add on a 1/2 person (Dan) – that’s another $21.25/week, bringing my weekly budget total to $63.75 – $255 a month.

It’s certainly been a challenge.

I made a temporary switch from my beloved Chobani $1.69 at my local grocery store to Yoplait Light – $3.99 for an 8 pack, plus I had a $1 coupon, making it under 40 cents a container. I still bought a few Chobani’s, but I searched and found the cheapest prices at my local Target. Yes, I drove to multiple stores, all within 10 miles of my house.

28 days into the challenge and I’m at $270.35. I went over my budget by $15.35. Not perfect by any means, but so much better than before. This month’s budget also included house hold items such as toilet paper, storage bags, household cleaners, etc. I just purchased those at Target, Home Depot and Walmart on sale – instead of at the grocery store.

I’m working on eating from my pantry and freezer, so that was helpful in keeping the costs down. We did eat out the weekend of my birthday, we still hosted friends for dinner, provided food for a family Father’s Day gathering and a few other events.

I didn’t have to buy a bunch of unhealthy food to keep the costs down… I just had to be a smarter consumer. No more lazy behaviors.

I will continue to map out a loose meal plan and I will continue to check the weekly ads. I signed up for e-coupons on grocery store websites that are in my local area. I actually USE the coupons I get from using store rewards cards and I went into the farmer’s market with a list. I almost put things in the cart on multiple occasions… but I didn’t. I stuck to my plan and cutting my monthly bill in more than 1/2 was worth every extra ounce of time and energy involved in planning ahead.

I realize that everyone has a different view when it comes to how much they spend on food or anything for that matter. Some choose to spend their money on other things, some don’t have the money to spend in the first place, some don’t have many options available to them. I understand and want to be respectful of my readers, but I also wanted to share my own journey of becoming more aware of my spending/grocery buying habits. I wanted to prove to myself that it is indeed possible to still eat healthy while on a budget. A budget that worked for me, not necessarily one that is right for everyone. I wanted to show myself that if I could actually see lots of space on the shelves and drawers of my fridge, freezer and pantry, that I didn’t need to panic. What I had on hand was enough and the urgency to replenish the minute I ran out of something has faded because of that.

Questions for you:

  1. How often to you grocery shop?
  2. Do you have a grocery budget?
  3. Do you shop at more than one store?
  4. Have you ever done an audit on your grocery spending?
  5. Any tips you would like to share with me or other readers? Just leave your answers in comments so we can all join in the discussion.

I knew I had been spending far too much on groceries, but I didn’t realize how much I’d been overspending until I sat down and actually added it all up. Two more days left in the month and I have everything I need to get through it. I’m already starting a July list – it’s going to be a bigger challenge since we’re hosting the 4th of July – but I’m up for it and excited to see how well I can do.

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    • Lysa on June 28, 2012 at 8:32 am

    You really got me thinking…it’s something that has been on my mind lately. I always seem to have an bunch of excuses why I can’t do this but it is time. Thanks for the push

      • foodiddy on June 28, 2012 at 10:54 am

      Good luck with your new plan – it honestly didn’t take that much extra time and like I said in my post, it sure was eye opening.

    • Jodi on June 28, 2012 at 9:19 am

    How often to you grocery shop? Once a week
    Do you have a grocery budget? Sad to say, but no ($100-200/week)
    Do you shop at more than one store? I shop at one more frequently because I get gas-points
    Have you ever done an audit on your grocery spending? I give my hubby a total each month for our bills


      • foodiddy on June 28, 2012 at 10:53 am

      I’m sure things changed a bit once you added to your family as well. Sounds like you have a good system and Safeway does gas points here too… I should definitely be taking advantage of that with our skyrocketing CA gas prices. Thanks for the tip! BTW, your son has got to be one of the cutest kids on the Internet, love when you share photos. 🙂

    • Holly on June 28, 2012 at 9:32 am

    We spend AT LEAST $200 per week on groceries for 2 people — though that sometimes includes stuff like Toilet Paper and Laundry detergent at Coscto too (I understand having no self control at Costco — I wax and wane in that area :))

    It seems like a shockingly large number to some but I actually think it’s pretty low/efficient for a few reasons:

    1) Between the two of us we basically eat 3 meals per day prepared at home. We go out sometimes but it’s not something we do that often, mostly because I really enjoy cooking (and blogging about it obvs.) I guess I kind of consider our food budget also intermixed with spending I would do on hobbies since cooking/blogging about food is something I spend a significant amount of time on.

    2) A couple of years ago we switched to a mostly paleo diet which at first *really* made the spending skyrocket. I’ve learned to buy and cook more budget friendly things now so our spending decreased, but when you are focusing on buying the best quality ingredients you can afford (wish I could afford it all, but no dice…haha) you end up spending a little more on food. But that’s okay for us I guess since it was kind of a lifestyle choice and a slightly higher grocery bill goes with it.

    I’m always interested in hearing how other people prioritize and execute their grocery budgets even if the things they value don’t align with what I value. It’s the medicine cabinet syndrome…gotta love a peek into the way other’s live 🙂 Meal planning has been a life-saver for me for sure. Excited to see this topic unfold on your blog!

      • foodiddy on June 28, 2012 at 10:51 am

      My spending was similar in that it also included the household items, that is why I had to incorporate those into my monthly budget as well. No number shocks me, I get including food in other categories like “hobbies” – being a food blogger. Props and some home decor also falls into that category for me. Thanks for sharing your story and I too like to peek into the way other’s live – probably why I’m obsessed with reading lifestyle blogs on top of food blogs.

    • Lora on June 28, 2012 at 9:41 am

    Questions for you:

    1.Generally I shop once a week. When things get crazy near the end of the school year I find myself stopping far more often because I’m just too frazzled.
    2. No, I don’t have a budget. Thankfully this has never been an issue.
    3. I shop primarily at Safeway and Costco.
    4.I think an audit would be frightening!
    5.My two biggest tips would be to try to plan, at least weekly, and pay attention to your store circulars. You don’t need to go to multiple stores in order to get a good deal. What’s that saying – work smarter, not harder? Same thing with grocery shopping – shop smarter, not more. If you see something for a good price in the circular, pick up an extra or two. And try to plan out a week’s worth of meals, then make your grocery list. Even if you don’t stick to your plan exactly it will ultimately save you time (and money) in the end.

      • foodiddy on June 28, 2012 at 10:42 am

      “Shop smarter, not more” – Love that. I know I joked about my time, but I really do value it and a little prep work goes a long way. Thanks for the tips.

    • Tina on June 28, 2012 at 9:41 am

    Hi Fu,

    It is great what you are doing.

    Me and my husband decided to budget, just to see if we can do it. We used to use only credit cards to pay and seemed so easy to make a huge bill by the end of the month. Therefore, I told him to just give me $250 cash (for the whole month) and see what happens.

    Honestly, it was a bit challenging in the begining because I still had my old mindset of splurging. Then, things changed and I made sure I buy only what I need. For example, I make two separate lists : One food, one household items. I make a special trip to Walmart and I buy all household items I need, but I dont buy 4 or 5 of each at a time. I buy only whats on the list and I buy 1. This way, I keep my bill small and do not overcrowd my closet with Pledge that will last me 24 months. After I am done with the items on the list, I pay and leave. I tend to circle only the isles that I know the stuff I need is. I dont get distracted.

    With the food, I almost do the same. I take advantage of all coupons, I can. My husband is signed up to recieve the ads online, so he likes checking them (not really my thing) and will tell me which stores has good prices that week. When I go to the store, I only buy what I need. In no way that we limit ourselves. I cook, so we dont eat junk. I only buy fresh meat and veggies, fruits. I buy organic milk, eggs, and butter.

    We have been doing this for few years now. It has become so easy to me, that I dont need to use cash anymore. My brain is trained so well, that I dont even track my spending each visit to the store, I use credit and I am still within limit, or in some special holidays a bit over. My mother is amazed with us because her and my father (plus grandma and bro) spent about $400 a week. She throws away a lot of produce because she never gets to it or she simply forgets about it in her overcrowded fridge. My fridge has space, but I like that because it makes me feel like I am not wasting money.

    With doing so, without even noticing, we were able to save a lot and cover all our debt. He afforded new windows for our house, an expensive washer/dryer, and now we bought all the cool stuff we wanted for our new baby. We were even able to convert to organic meat.

    We, also, love TJ’s, but I buy few things from there. For example, we buy all our wine there. It is the cheapest. So, for example…if this month I dont need a lot of household items, we buy a case of wines. With TJ’s prices, it has never been more than $90 for the ones my husband likes. Then, we have wine for a while, so next month we may buy a big bottle of some booze (from Costco), which lasts a long time. We figured that splitting things to make the budget and only buying 1 thing..not 10 of them, has helped a lot.

    I, also, limitted the snacks I liked to buy. I used to like to try every new thing that came out. Most of the time be disappointed and even end up tossing it. Now, I buy what I really like. I buy one and when its done, if I still crave it, I will buy one more. I stopped putting multiple of the same in my cart because I was greedy. Now, I say to myself “its not healthy anyway, one is enough”.

    Well, that seems like a long conversation that we can have…but you got some of what I do. Of course, $250 in California might be impossible, but in Chicago is not too bad. Oh, what I also stopped doing is going to the big chain stores. I shop at local, foreign stores. We have plenty of Italian and Greek stores that offer better produce, fresher meat, and very affordable prices. If you can, look for these in your area. You would be surprised.

    Hugs, Tina

      • foodiddy on June 28, 2012 at 10:45 am

      I love the cash idea. It forces you to really stick to a plan. I think it’s fantastic that you were able to save and pay off debt as a result of being more conscious of your spending. It’s also encouraging to know that you are able to buy organic and fresh while staying within your budget. I know it can be done. My budget also included household items… since I was buying them at the grocery store, they did need to be included in my monthly budget. Thanks for sharing your story and for the great tips Tina!

    • Amy on June 28, 2012 at 9:56 am

    You know my situation is a little different since the boys are with me only every other week. But, I’m going to still chime in.

    1) I grocery shop weekly, usually on Sundays.
    2) I don’t have a budget but should. I try very hard to stay around 100-125 a week.
    3) I go in between 2 grocery stores. I prefer one place better than the other because their fruit seems much better. I’m fortunate I don’t have a TJ near me! But I’ll admit I took the trip 45 minutes to experience it and loved it, HA!

    Tips: After the divorce I ended up using coupons more and tried cutting back on things. I spend less when I don’t have the boys and don’t make as many “big meals”. I eat more simple when they aren’t with me…. eggs/cereal…omelets. I pick up a Chicken roaster (the kind already made every day in the deli) probably more often than I’d like to admit but they are so cheap and I make lots of meals from them. There’s a website I’ve found that you may enjoy. You plug in info of your zipcode and they email you the sales each week. I don’t pay the fee. Also, you can choose recipes from the items that are on sale that week. It’s called FOOD ON THE TABLE. Here’s the link

      • foodiddy on June 28, 2012 at 10:41 am

      Thanks for the website link, will definitely check that out. Several people have mentioned getting a roasted chicken… I have done that once and felt like it was super greasy, maybe I need to search for a better option. My brother does a great beer butt chicken, so perhaps buying a whole chicken and doing that on the BBQ would work too.

        • Amy on June 28, 2012 at 10:46 am

        It may just be the store you are buying the chicken at. I get mine from two different stores here in Michigan and never have had the grease issue. I pull the skin off as well, and maybe that’s why I don’ t notice it. I love to put it on salads, etc. Or if I’m in a hurry I’ll have it with a sweet potato one night.

      • Amy on June 28, 2012 at 10:45 am

      Oh, and I forgot to mention that I do what you do, I go through cooking magazines, cookbooks to get ideas for different things to make too. For the most part it’s the basics but the expense of my bill goes up often when I want to mix in a different recipe here and there on our menu 🙂

    • sizzle on June 28, 2012 at 10:09 am

    I am afraid to do an audit on my grocery spending. I KNOW it needs to change. We’re joining Costco this weekend because we finally have the room for bulk items in our new house and I buy so much meat each week, I need to be able to buy it bulk and have it be affordable. I mostly go to the produce market to buy our fruit and veggies once a week and then to Safeway but I don’t really like the options at Safeway. I’d rather go try Costco and the produce market and sometimes go to the hippy market for stuff like chia seeds and fancy almond butter. 🙂

      • foodiddy on June 28, 2012 at 10:40 am

      Yay for home ownership and more space to fill up, ha! ha! Love me a good hippy market, that’s the co-op for me. I know you are doing Paleo and that’s a lot of meat, just like the 17 day… so yes, Costco would be a good option if I had more self control.

    • Elinor on June 28, 2012 at 10:30 am

    This was so helpful. Can’t wait to see other people’s ideas. It may be contrary to your plan, but I find I buy less when I do the French method of buying food each day for that day’s needs. I throw out less as well.
    But the planning ahead part is worthy of examination and you actually make it sound fun by tagging on the word “Challenge!”

    • Deede on June 29, 2012 at 9:47 am

    Hey Kath!
    It’s absolutely awesome to see you tackling this. I know exactly what you are talking about.

    Our answers:
    How often to you grocery shop? Once a week. We eat a lot of fresh produce, so I have to shop frequently
    Do you have a grocery budget? Yep! (See below)

    Do you shop at more than one store?
    Yes technically in CA I did.I’d shop at farmers market for fruit and veggies, Trader Joes for as much as I could then to Savemart for the stuff I needed but couldn’t find.
    Have you ever done an audit on your grocery spending?
    Yep. About 4 years ago.

    Josh and I spend $500/mo easy on groceries alone before we started budgeting. I was having trouble fitting stuff in the fridge and throwing stuff out every week. Lots of stuff. I usually shop the store perimeter where all the non-processed foods are. If I didn’t use my goods in a couple of days, they would got bad. It felt terrible wasting all that food. Boo!

    Matt was one of the first people I knew that successfully reduced their food budget. He’d plan the meals (simple and healthy ones) then purchase the groceries. He’d spend $70/week IIRC. This was before Baby McMc, so I don’t know what it’s like now, but I’m sure they are still keeping a tight number. I believe that he shops at Walmart & BelAir. I was inspired by his challenge and we started budgeting our groceries.

    We have set up a couple of budgets to monitor our spending. $50-week on groceries ($250/mo), $100 eating out (1/2 the first part of the month, 1/2 the second), $100 for household goods. Household goods and eating out are paid from checking. Groceries are paid with our credit card. We will pay separately for items that aren’t groceries, but are purchased at the grocery store. to keep the budget clear. Since Josh does all the bills and has access to all the accounts I had to find a way to track what I was spending on groceries. My number one responsibility is to meet the $250 target. I started using an app called EEBA, which works like keeping cash. You add $ to each budget envelope at the beginning of the month then, enter in the when, where, $ for each I purchase. I just add it real quick after shopping, before I forget. It tells you how much you have left and how many days you should skip shopping to stay on target. It’s been very telling for me. It also give you a nasty red bar and a shocked envelope if you exceed your budget. It’s easy to use and has helped me a great deal. This tool actually has help to curb fancy meal prep to a degree. If I don’t have the money left for a more expensive ordeal, then I don’t do it.

    I found the best results, looking through the circulars briefly, then picking out a few recipes for the week. I am careful to pay attention to the number of servings. We will eat the same thing multiple days, which is great, because then I don’t have to put on a cooking production everyday.

    Another thing you might try is buying a big tub of Chobani and putting in individual containers so that you can still enjoy it. It’s a good way to save some skrilla. We just buy plain yogurt and mix in fruit and granola.

    Best of luck and keep with it. You will figure out a system and it will become second nature.

    Love ya!
    Deede + Josh

  1. I’m happy to hear that you’re doing this! I am totally one of those people who find a small thrill in ad-searching and saving… he he. I’m lucky to live near a few grocery choices (and a Target), so I can pick and choose.

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