This article discusses why we often spend much more money than we expect to in the grocery store, and it offers several solutions--including one counterintuitive idea that could help you save half off your grocery bill.
The other day I made dinner for the two of us: a delicious Cajun meatloaf, courtesy of my favorite gourmand Paul Prudhomme. Despite being meat-heavy, the cost of this meal was an inexpensive $11.49--less than $2.00 per serving--and it should feed us for at least three meals each.
Ha! Further proof that cooking meals at home is practically free, right?
Wait. Then why did my grocery bill that day run me more than $70?
This, in a nutshell, is why many readers get frustrated with those of us in the world of frugal food blogs. We all love to talk about how such and such a meal costs only 60c per serving, or how many recipes are laughably cheap. And yet when I went out to buy supplies for a supposedly inexpensive meal, my grocery store bill ended up being six times the cost of the recipe.
Here's the rub: when people spend a lot more money than they planned at the grocery store, it makes cooking at home seem more expensive than it really is.
A cheap meal doesn't exist in a vacuum. There are other issues--and costs--to consider. That's why it's somewhat misleading to read the cost of a recipe on a food blog, choose a bunch of recipes for the week, add up those food costs and then assume that's roughly what you'll spend at the store. If you want to manage your food buying efficiently, your responsibilities won't end there.
Obviously, I did not manage my food buying efficiently in this grocery store trip. In this post I'll share what I did wrong, and I'll walk through five reasons why my grocery bill turned out to be so much steeper than expected. My hope is that you can walk away from this post with a handful of simple rules to help you dramatically reduce your grocery budget.
But let's have the conclusion first, and it's a piece of good news: almost all of these cost overruns can be easily avoided with a bit of awareness and a couple of good habits.
Reason #1: I bought items that weren't on my list.
We've been in Hawaii until a couple of weeks ago, so I just had to buy a pineapple. Um, make that two. I also bought fresh cherries (sort of on sale at $5.99/lb) and some local blueberries too. I also gazed at the delicious cheeses in our store's budget-killing gourmet cheese section and walked away with a $4.89 block of Jarlsberg cheese. Total extra cost: $20.11
Lesson: Make a grocery list and stick to it.
Reason #2: I mindlessly bought expensive splurge items.
On my grocery trip, I went wild and bought a 24 pack (!) of ice cream sandwiches (ostensibly for Laura, but I'm probably going to end up eating most of them), Klondike bars, and a big bar of dark chocolate. These were all examples of second order foods, all expensive, and--excluding the chocolate--all unnecessary. Total extra cost: $13.57
Lesson: Splurge items are fine if you make a willful, conscious purchase. Splurge items are not fine if you make them mindlessly.
Reason #3: I bought staples and pantry items.
We just returned from four months away, so I've had to stock up on some staples, including a 20-lb bag of white rice as well as brown rice and jarred pasta sauce. Both the white rice and the pasta sauce were on sale (the rice massively so at $9.99 for a 20-lb bag). The brown rice I could have postponed until a sale came along. Total extra cost: $15.97
Lesson: Stock up on pantry items only when you have to, or when there is a meaningful economic incentive (like a big sale).
Reason #4: My grocery list contained non-food items.
I also bought toilet paper, batteries and sandwich bags. Granted, these items have absolutely nothing to do with the cost of the food I made, but they did add costs to a grocery store bill that left me with a vague feeling of "gee, the food this week sure seemed expensive!" Total extra cost: $9.70
Lesson: Your overall grocery bill may not accurately represent your meal costs.
Reason #5: I had to buy more than I needed of most recipe items.
This is highly typical in cooking. I needed only 25 cents' worth of breadcrumbs, but I had to buy an entire canister for $1.29. I needed a 1/2 cup of ketchup, but I had to buy a full bottle (on sale) for $2.09. I only used about half of the meat that I bought. And so on. Most people cite this as a primary reason why cooking at home is too expensive, but keep in mind these items have now been paid for, so they'll essentially be free the next time I use them. Note with some perishables, especially fresh herbs and greens, this can still be a frustrating source of waste. Total extra cost: about $8.00
Lesson: Select additional recipes for your weekly menu that use many of the same bulk ingredients. You can scale your grocery purchases over several meals and significantly reduce your costs and any leftover ingredient waste.
How to Save Half Off Your Grocery Bill
Okay. I'll conclude with one final (and surprising) conclusion from my grocery store run: Reasons #1 and #2--off-list items and unnecessary splurge items--together drove 50% of my extra costs.
Let me repeat that. Fifty percent.
Believe it or not, this is the most encouraging news of all. It suggests that you can save an enormous percentage on your grocery bill by making just two changes to your grocery store habits: 1) cut back dramatically on splurge items, and 2) don't buy anything not on your list. That's a powerful example of the 80/20 Rule in action, and it's something any of us can do.
Readers, what additional advice would you add?
A Recession-Proof Guide to Saving Money on Food
Applying the 80/20 Rule to Diet, Food and Cooking
A Simple Way to Beat Rising Food Prices
Cooking Like the Stars? Don't Waste Your Money
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