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31 Days to a Better Grocery Budget: Menu Planning on a Budget (Part 1)

Missed the first posts this series? Read them here.

So now that you know some of the benefits of menu-planning, I thought it’d be helpful to share some suggestions for planning a budget-friendly menu. However, please remember that there is no right or wrong way to plan a menu. These are just suggestions–take what works for your family, and leave the rest!

1) “Shop” Your Cupboards

I always start menu-planning by looking in my freezer, refrigerator, and cupboards. This simple exercise often yields a great deal of inspiration.

For instance, last week I discovered that I had cream cheese, canned tomatoes, and noodles on hand. So I made this lasagna as part of Freezer Cooking Day.

Maybe you open up your freezer and find chicken and frozen broccoli and you open up your cupboard and see a bag of rice. Well, you have the beginnings of Chicken Broccoli Rice Casserole. Just add cheese and cream of chicken soup  to your grocery list (or make your own Homemade Cream Soup) and you have everything you need for one dinner that week.

One great resource for coming up with recipes based upon what you already have on hand is by using the Ingredient Search feature from AllRecipes. Type in the ingredients you have and those you don’t have, and it will pull up a list of recipes you can make.

Two other websites you can consult for recipes based upon ingredients you have on hand are SuperCook and Recipe Matcher.

2) Consult the Sales Fliers

Once you feel like you’re getting the hang of planning your menu based upon what you have on hand, you’re ready to move onto the next level of menu-planning–planning your menu based upon what’s on sale at your local store(s). This is where you really start to see the savings happening!

Most grocery store chains have their weekly sale fliers available online. If not, you will often receive a copy in the mail. Or, you could even pick one up at the store if you’re going to be driving right by it.

When you’re in the middle of planning your menu and grocery list, quickly browse through these sale fliers and see if there are any exceptional deals on things you need or things you will use in the next few months. Most of the time, the hottest deals of the week are listed predominantly in the front page of the flier. Oftentimes, these front-page deals are “loss-leaders”. (“Loss-leaders” are deals which the store is actually breaking even– or losing money on! They are designed to be good enough to “bait” you into shopping at that store.)

Don’t neglect to look through the full flier, though. Sometimes there are great deals which are hidden on the middle pages. However, remember that just because something is listed in the sales flier it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great deal. Over time, you’ll start learning what are the “rock-bottom” prices for items you buy and how often they go on sale in your area.

3) Survey Your Coupons

Once I’ve gotten a good idea of what I have on hand and what’s on sale at my nearby stores, I pull out my coupon box to match up coupons with the sales and see if I have any other coupons I want to be sure and use (such as high-value coupons or coupons for free items). I put these coupons  in a stack and then it’s time to make my menu plan–which we’ll talk about in more detail in the next post in this series.

What are your best tips for menu-planning on a budget? Comment and tell us!

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31 Days to a Better Grocery Budget: Menu Planning on a Budget (Part 2)

Missed the first posts this series? Read them here.

You’ve “shopped” your cupboards, consulted the sales fliers and surveyed your coupons, now it’s time to get down to business with menu-planning. But first off, let me re-iterate a very important point:

There’s not a perfect way to plan a menu.

Everyone is going to plan their menu a little bit differently. As I said yesterday, there’s no right or wrong way to menu plan. What matters is that you do it, and that it works for your family. For the record, I do it a little differently each time I plan–depending upon how much time and inspiration I have and what our plans for the week look like.

Sometimes, I have lots of extra ingredients to work with, there are lots of sales, and I have numerous coupons. When that happens, it’s pretty easy to pull together a week’s worth of meals without a lot of extra thought.

I’ve found that once-a-month Freezer Cooking makes menu planning a breeze. In fact, many weeks, I can just write out breakfast, lunch, and dinner ideas on this form here, and we’re good to go for the week. I use the sheet for ideas, but I don’t necessarily follow it to a tee. In our home, flexibility and creativity is okay–provided it doesn’t mean any extra trips to the store!

However, at times, my cupboards and freezers are pretty bare, the sales are sparse, and my coupon box is relatively empty. If that’s the case, I see how much grocery money I have to work with, and I usually pull out some cookbooks to get the wheels in my head going. Or I’ll go to one of my favorite food blogs (like Tammy’s Recipes) for ideas. You can also check out Menu Plan Monday for a plethora of menu ideas from around the blogosphere.

Find a method that works for you.

You might find it helpful to take 30 minutes and make a list of 30 meals your family loves to serve as inspiration if you’re ever feeling a lack of creativity while menu-planning.

Or, you could have pre-established themes for dinners each week. Tsh, over at SimpleMom, does this and here’s an example of what her Themed Menu Plan has looked like:

Mondays – pasta
Tuesdays – soup, salad, and/or sandwiches
Wednesdays – stir fry
Thursdays – crock pot
Fridays – pizza
Saturdays – something new
Sundays – something easy

Jenna from the Newlyweds blog left a comment sharing how she plans her menus:

I try to plan 2 meals around items I already have at home in the pantry or freezer, and then plan some meals based on what’s on sale, and some based on what we would like to eat. I keep my plan flexible and allow for anything that will pop up. I also like to keep items on hand all the time for a few quick meals like taco soup and spaghetti. This way, if some comes up, I can whip these up in a jiffy. –Jenna @ Newlyweds

It might seem like a daunting task at first–especially if this is all new to you!–but don’t be overwhelmed. Do the best you can do and remember that it’s never going to be absolutely perfect. Over time, though, you’ll likely begin to realize significant savings just by taking a few extra steps and putting the effort forth to make a plan.

Free Menu Planning Worksheet and Grocery Shopping Lists

To aid you in your menu-planning and grocery-list-making, Joy from FiveJ’s and I put together some free downloads for you. (By the way, Joy put together a snazzy free downloads page here so you can access all the free downloads we currently have available. Enjoy!)

Meal Planning Worksheet :: This brainstorming form contains spaces to write down store deals, coupons, items on hand, and recipes that can be made from those items.

Shopping List :: Contains space for the items to purchase, the cost of the item, whether there is a coupon for it, and how much the coupon is for. Also includes a space for notes where you can record extra information about your shopping trip.

Two-Store Shopping List :: Two separate shopping lists on one page, each of which includes space for the items to purchase, the cost of the item, and whether there is a coupon for it. Also includes a space for notes where you can record extra information about your shopping trip.

How do you normally plan your menus? I’d love to hear what works for you!

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31 Days to a Better Grocery Budget: Shop With Cash

Missed the first posts this series? Read them here.

Up until this point, the posts in this series have been pretty non-controversial. But today, that’s all changing, because I’m going to make a bold statement:

You will very likely see significant savings on your grocery bill if you only shop with cash.

I know all of you “But-I’m-So-Responsible-With-My-Credit-Card” people probably aren’t going to be happy with me for saying this, but I really believe that.

You see, when you shop with a credit card (or even a debit card, for that matter!) you can have your budget in your head and you can do the best to stick with it when you check out, but it’s so much easier to go just a little bit over here and there when you’re swiping. You can justify that $2 you went over your budget to buy something which was a “great deal” when paying with your card.

$2 might not seem like much, but if you spend $2 to $3 more on groceries every week, that’s adds up to around $130 in extra spending over a year’s time!

Paying with cash forces you to stick to your budget.

When I know that all I have to use at checkout is the cash in my grocery budget envelope, you better believe I carefully evaluate every impulse purchase or great deal I come across: “Do I really need this?” “Is this in the budget?”

Sometimes, it truly is a great deal and I have the money in my cash envelope to pay for it so it goes in the cart. Other times, I decide it’s a good enough deal that I skip buying something else on my list that we can do without in order to afford it. Or, many times, I put it back on the shelf.

The Cash-Only Challenge

Maybe you’re one of those extremely responsible–and very rare!–people who can stick to your budget while swiping a card. If you are, kuddos to you!

However, if you find yourself struggling financially and wishing you could figure out why your grocery budget is so high, can I challenge you to take a Cash-Only Challenge for 3 months and see if it impacts your grocery spending over the course of a three-month period?

Here’s how the Cash-Only Challenge works:

1) Commit to only spend what is in your grocery envelope for the next 3 months.

2) Go to the bank and withdraw cash in the amount of your pre-determined Grocery Budget. Put this cash in an envelope and keep it in a safe place. For more on cash-only shopping, read The Envelope System Experiment.

3) Leave your credit/debit cards/checkbook at home and only bring your cash envelope and a calculator with you to the grocery store.

4) Calculate your purchases on the calculator as you add them to your cart. This will motivate you to carefully evaluate all purchases, will make you aware of how much items actually cost, encourage you to look for the best deal, and force you to get creative if your list is longer than you have room for in the budget.

5) Pay with cash when you checkout and see significant grocery savings–hopefully!

6) Decide you’ll never go back to paying with your credit/debit card. Well, okay so you might not get quite that drastic, but I can almost guarantee you that going cash-only for a short-time will have taught you something worthwhile!

Have you tried a cash-only system? If so, what benefits have you found from doing so? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.

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31 Days to a Better Grocery Budget: The Buy Ahead Principle

Missed the first posts this series? Read them here.

Last night when I went grocery shopping, I bought 18 sticks of deodorant. Yes, I said 18!

Did I buy all this deodorant because I heard that there was going to be a shortage of deodorant for the next 4 years? Um, no.

I bought 18 sticks of deodorant because I had coupons which made them free or more-than-free.

Never Pay Retail

One of my biggest secrets for grocery saving success is that I practice the Buy Ahead Principle. Which means, basically, other than dairy products and produce, I aim to never pay full price for anything. 

If you’re willing to be patient and observant, you can almost always buy most items at 50% off their retail price or more. Because I’ve been using coupons and bargain-shopping for over 10 years now, I aim to purchase most things when they are 75-100% off of the retail price.

I don’t just buy one of an item when it is at it’s rock-bottom price. Instead, I purchase as many items as I can afford in my grocery budget to tide me over until the next sale.

For many people who are used to buying only what groceries you’ll use in the next week, the concept of buying ahead can be mind-boggling. However, it makes complete sense if you stop and consider it.

Paying Retail vs. Buying Ahead

If your family uses 10 tubes of toothpaste in a year’s time and the retail price of toothpaste is $2.49, if you bought it at retail, you’d be paying $24.90 per year for toothpaste.

If, however, you practiced the Buy Ahead Principle, and you collected your $1/1 toothpaste coupons and waited until toothpaste went on sale for $1 (which it does a few times per year in our area), you could buy 10 tubes of toothpaste for free.

That’s a savings of $24.90 per year!

How to Build a Stockpile of Food and Toiletries

What if you were to practice the Buy Ahead principle on when buying the majority of your groceries? Think about how much you would save! From my best estimates, I would say we routinely save at least $30-$50 each week by practicing the Buy Ahead Principle.

Would you like to see significant savings by Buying Ahead as well? Here are some suggestions:

1) Designate a Small Portion of Your Grocery Budget to Building Your Stockpile

If this is a new concept for you, don’t go out and spend $500 tomorrow trying to build up a stockpile. Instead, designate a small percentage of your grocery budget each week to buying extra of those heavily-discounted items which you know you will use sometime in the next few months.

Even $5 or $10 a week devoted to stocking up on deeply-discounted items can go quite far. If you don’t find any really great deals one week, save your designated “Stockpile Money” for the next week.

2) Designate a Small Area of Your Home to Store Your Stockpile

The argument I often hear when I suggest people practice the Buy Ahead Principle is “But I don’t have any space to stock up.” Well, in very rare cases (say, if your family of 6 is living in a one-bedroom apartment!), I’d agree. But in most cases, there are plenty of creative nooks and crannies in your home you could use to store extra non-perishable food and household supplies.

Maybe you need to clear out some items you’re not using to make room. Or maybe you could install some extra shelving in a closet. Perhaps you could store things under the bed or in a few boxes in a closet. Get creative, think outside the box, and I’m guessing you’ll find someplace you can use!

When we were living in a one-bedroom apartment which only had one small closer, I used a little cabinet in the living room to store extra stuff. When we were living in a two-bedroom apartment, I used the cupboards over the washer and dryer to store extra stuff. I was amazed at how much I could fit in a small space when I set my mind to it!

3) Determine When Enough is Enough

I think it’s extremely cost-effective to Buy Ahead. However, I also think it’s just as important to know when enough is a enough. If you have mountains of unopened tubes of toothpaste falling down on top of you when you open up the bathroom cupboard, you probably don’t need to go out and buy 55 more tubes!

Yes, I bought 18 sticks of deodorant yesterday. That’s more than we’ll use in the next 2 years. But what I didn’t tell you earlier was that I’ll likely donate at least half–if not more–of those. I love being able to share from our surplus of items with those in need. Or just pass on a great deal to a friend, too!

My philosophy is that if there is plenty of an item on the shelf, I have a lot of coupons, the item is free, it’s something we’ll use, and it’s something I can easily donate if we have a surplus, I’ll buy as many as I have coupons for.Your philosophy might be different. So decide when enough is enough for you, and then stick to that.

Twice a year, I go through all of our stockpile of groceries and household items and pare down to the basics which will last me for 4-8 weeks. This way, we never have an over-abundance. In addition, taking the Eat From the Pantry challenge is a great way for us to make sure and use up some of our stockpile.

If you don’t apply any of the other 30 ways to cut your grocery budget that I’ll be sharing in this series, but you adopt the Buy Ahead Principle and stick with a grocery budget, I guarantee you will see a significant savings in your grocery bill. And you’ll likely be shopping less and eating better than ever before!

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31 Days to a Better Grocery Budget: Shop at More Than One Store (Part 1)

Missed the first posts this series? Read them here.

When I mention how I save a lot of money by shopping at more than one store, I’m often met with resistance:

“But I don’t have time to go to more than one store! I can barely make it into Walmart once a week.”

“That’s not saving money! You’re wasting all sorts of time and gas running around to fifteen different stores in one day. Wouldn’t it be more cost-effective and efficient to just do all your shopping at one store each week?”

“I’m glad that works for you, but I don’t have near the patience or organization to even attempt something like that!”

Yes, one can make a lot of excuses for not shopping at more than one store. But I think all of these excuses show a lack of understanding as to what it really means to shop at more than one store.

Let me be clear: I am not advocating going to 15 different stores which are 45 minutes away from your home in order to save $2 at each store.

That’s not saving money, in my definition. Instead, that’s wasting enormous amounts of time and effort and producing little to show for it but wear and tear on your vehicle and an exorbitant gas bill.

What I am advocating is taking a little bit of time to scout at your nearby stores each week and pick a few which have the best sales and deals. Then base your grocery trip planning on shopping only at those stores.

A simple example…

Last week I flew to Baltimore and ended up spending quite a bit of time at the airport between my four different flights and layovers. I only packed one checked bag since I also had Silas, a stroller, a laptop, and a diaper bag. So I had limited space to bring snacks to eat on my flight days.

Because of this, I ended up buying a few items at the airport stores to tide me over for breakfast and lunch. Instead of just going to the first shop I found and plunking down whatever dollar amount they were asking, I took five minutes to survey my options.

I quickly walked over to each of the shops within a minute of where I was and checked out their menu boards and prices. By doing this, I was able to put together a relatively healthy meal for less than $6. While that number might seem high–and it is!–compared to how expensive some of the meals were at the airport, I definitely saved at least $3-$5 by taking five minutes to check out my options.

$3 to $5 in savings for a little walking and five minutes is a pretty good investment, in my opinion. In fact, if I were to save $4 every five minutes, that’s like saving $48 an hour–which isn’t an hourly wage to sneeze at! Plus, did I mention that when you save money, it’s tax-free?

In the same way, by putting forth a little bit of effort and learning what are the best deals for your area and picking a few stores to shop at each week that are running the best sales, you can get rock-bottom prices on your groceries and save significant amounts of money each week.

Tomorrow, I’ll share some step-by-step ideas for getting started shopping at more than one store while keeping it simple and not wasting a lot of time, effort, and mileage to do so.

Do you shop at more than one store for groceries? If not, what’s holding you back from doing so?

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31 Days to a Better Grocery Budget: Shop At More Than One Store (Part 2)

Missed the first posts this series? Read them here.

Yesterday, we talked about the importance of shopping at more than one store and how this can have significant impact on your grocery budget. Today, I want to give you some steps to get started in this venture. It’s not rocket science, I promise!

1) Make a List of All Stores in Your Area

Don’t just list the grocery stores, think of any possible place you might be able to buy grocery-related items:

::Co-ops

::Dollar Stores

::Scratch and Dent Stores

::Overstock Stores (Big Lots, etc.)

::Big Box Stores (KMart, Walmart, Target)

::Warehouse Stores (Costco, Sam’s Club, B.J.’s)

::Drug Stores (CVS, Walgreens, Rite-Aid)

::Asian Markets

::Bulk Foods Stores

::CSA’s

::Farmer’s Markets

::Health Food Stores

I’d recommend searching online or pulling out the phone book to see if you have any of the above stores in your area if you’re not sure. And ask your friends and neighbors if they know of any great places to shop which you might not know about.

If you live in a small town, this should be simple. In fact, you might only have two stores to choose from. (And if you only have one store to choose from, you’re exempt from any of this legwork!)

If you live in a larger town or big metropolis, this is going to be a bigger undertaking. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the options, limit the stores to those within a 5 mile radius or which are close to areas you regularly frequent.

2) Visit Your Area Stores and Record the Prices of 25 Items You Routinely Buy

Thanks to Joy at FiveJs, we have some handy free downloadable Price Book Forms you can use to record these numbers:

  1. Price Book (by Store) :: Record the prices for products at a single store. This can be done first, and then the information transferred to individual product sheets like, like the Price Book (by Product) form below.
  2. Price Book (by Product) :: Record the prices for a particular product at multiple stores.
  3. Half-Sheet Price Book (by Product) :: Record the prices for a particular product at multiple stores, but laid out two to a page.

Once again, if this feels overwhelming, just pick two or three grocery stores to start with. You’ll have plenty of time to branch out in the future.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew and end up burning out on this whole bargain-shopping thing before you’ve even really started!

3) Find Out What Your Local Stores’ Coupon and Mark-Down Policies Are

Questions to Ask Regarding Coupons:

::Does this store double coupons? If so, up to what amount? Are there limitations on the doubling (some stores will only double one or three of the same kind of coupon per transaction.)

::Does the store accept expired coupons?

::Does the store offer store coupons which can be used in addition to manufacturer’s coupons?

::Does the store accept competitor’s coupons?

::Does the store mark down produce, dairy, and meat on a regular basis? If so, what days and times does this usually occur?

4) Determine Which Store(s) Regularly Have the Lowest Prices and Best Sales

After filling out the price book forms and finding out your local stores’ coupon policies and mark-down policies, you will have a pretty clear picture of which stores are best to shop at on a regular basis. However, most stores run their sales cycles every twelve weeks or so, with a few incredible sales and loss-leaders thrown in on occasion. To get a more accurate picture, I’d recommend tracking the sales at a few stores for three months.

This does not mean that you necessarily need to go to five different stores and fill out a price book form every week. But I would recommend scanning the sales fliers each week and actually visiting each store at least once a month.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about how to take this information gathered and make a shopping gameplan which will, in turn, reduce your grocery bill.

Of the different stores listed above, which ones do you regularly shop at and find the best deals at? Have you discovered any little-known places for scoring great deals? Tell us about them!

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