Over the past few years, my wife and I have really got a handle on our finances. We write down how much we spend each month, including cash, and enter it all into a spreadsheet where we can keep track of trends, spikes and other issues. Our main goal is to make sure we don’t spend more than we make, and this seems to be helping a lot.
There are certain expenses that we don’t have so much control over - the mortgage, costs for the kids’ school and activities, municipal taxes, etc. But there are those kinds of expenses where if we make an effort, we can cut down the monthly total. Some things, like phone costs, won’t be that significant. But aside from the mortgage, our grocery bill is our biggest expense.
Any advice on how to work on that one? Even if we could save 10-20% each month, that would turn out to be a lot.
I’ve seen websites that tell you how to shop in the supermarket - make a list before you go, don’t take kids with you, etc. That stuff we do pretty well, and I’m less concerned about it.
But what I’d really like to do is figure out where all the money is going, and map the trends the same way we map our budget in general. Are we buying too much of a particular item? Are we using the food at the best frequency (e.g. should we go through a jar of mayo once a week or two)? Are we getting the right kind of items (flour is cheaper than oatmeal - which should we be baking with?). That kind of thing.
Anyone have any ideas or experience on how to get on top of this?
You seem to have a handle on the basics. I think you can maintain a full and varied pantry without going broke; you need not live on whatever the Israeli equivalent of rice and beans is to get buy.
Make a list - actually, make a permanent household list of everything you buy and make it a checklist. Have the pages laminated (cutting down to half-letter or A3 size helps) and put them on a ring. Use a dry-erase marker to tick off items and make notes. At the store, wipe off each tick mark or note as you buy the item. If something isn’t on the list, stop and think a good long minute if it’s necessary enough to add to the next update of the list. If it’s not, consider again whether you need it and why you think you do.
Buy bulk - six months to a year in cleaning goods, a month or more in staples, as large as you can in perishables. Doing a few days’ shopping every few days really kills the budget. Invest in good storage containers for fragile items like flour, grain, sugar etc.
Buy store brands, not name brands. You may have to use some comparison sites or magazines and try some things, but for products like window cleaner, laundry and dish soap,etc. generics are often as good or better (fewer dyes, scents, wrappers, etc.)
All pretty basic stuff. If there’s one key, it’s “maintain control.” Don’t let ads, kids, impulses and hurry drive your purchasing.
Nothing beats a spreadsheet. Enter your most common grocery items, the item cost and calculate ytd costs based on the number of times you repurchase the item. Have a column to checkmark when the item needs purchasing again. That column should increment your repurchase counter. The spreadsheet can be used to print a grocery list for purchases.
done right you know…
lays potato chips $4, ytd $60, purchased 15 times. add to shop list? yes
look over the numbers. see what you can do without. Do you really need to buy $70 a year in soda? Or $90 a year for chips? you get the idea.
For even more analysis import the spreadsheet into Access. you can categorize your food items, **basics (milk, bread,eggs), junk food **(chips,beer,soda, nuts), proteins, canned goods etc. create ytd totals for each category. Create a pie chart.
Why yes I am a Computer Analyst. Why do you ask?
But all that computer work makes you hungry and you buy even more groceries. :o
Grocery lists are supposed to reduce impulse buying.
I’m not sure it does. I’m pretty disciplined about what I buy. Cookies on sale? No thanks. I’m already aware that sales are designed to trigger impulse buying. Amazing how many people buy stuff because it’s on sale.
I don’t use a grocery list myself. I look in the fridge and pantry to see what needs replenishing and that’s what I buy.
We don’t buy in bulk. Can’t afford it and don’t have the extra storage. What I do is write out menus for the coming week, suppers mainly but some lunch and breakfast items because for us they’re hit-or-miss. The menu is somewhat flexible—have Thursday’s dinner on Monday if you want but use/interchange the same foods you planned for and bought. If I buy a head of lettuce and two tomatoes it’s because sometime during that week we’re going to have 1)sandwiches 2)tacos and 3)small side salads along with something else.
Start your grocery list with the ingredients you need for those meals. Then list toiletries really needed. (A chunk out of the weekly cost.) Then add a couple wants that’ll keep you happy throughout the week. (Never “deprive” yourself. That’s the key to sticking with something.)
Study the grocery sale papers before you go and adjust meals accordingly. Use coupons IF they’re for what you need. Shop late in the afternoon/early evening for meat when it’s been marked down. (Nothing wrong with it. Just…tomorrow it won’t be “fresh.” Same with breads and sometimes fruit.) ONLY shop once a week—no do-overs. Keep powdered milk on hand. But do have a few extra dollars on you when you shop to snap up unadvertised sales.
A list is the list of things you need, perhaps with a sublist of things you want… and judgment as to whether to buy any of those things is subject to on-the-spot judgment about price. If I’m in a store and (say) milk is outrageously priced, I’ll save the purchase for a subsequent trip somewhere I know it’s cheaper.
Listing what you need, especially if you use a permanent list, is a way to make sure you don’t forget items and have time to make such alternate choices. Viewing it as a Christmas list of everything you can think of to buy is wrong, but I don’t know any household listmakers who use them that way.
Uh… right. This is even more of a stretch than Thud’s notion. You make a list to make sure you spend all your money? I don’t think so. (You “go shopping” to spend all your money; you lose if you come home with any.)
If you have a choice of several supermarkets to go to, then do some price comparison.
I don’t know how this plays in ארץ ישראל, but in all the medium-to-large-size cities I’ve lived in (in California), there are some rather dramatic differences in prices at various large supermarkets. Large enough differences, that I can’t see why anyone shops at the more expensive stores.
We have several chains of supermarkets that resemble the “Big Box” discount stores, sometimes described as “warehouse style” stores. Their prices, overall, are noticeably lower than other stores around. Even aside from those, some other chains of supermarkets are noticeably much more expensive than others. Whatever they’re competing on, it doesn’t seem to be price.
I think some further questions are in order to drill down and see what might be the problem:
Do you feel you are spending too much on groceries specifically, or are you simply looking for another area to cut costs? (After all, it may be the case you are already spending fairly reasonably.)
If you feel you are overspending, by how much each month? (What is the budget amount versus average amount?)
Do you feel that you are wasting food? (If so, then come up with strategies to avoid waste. One thing I have done is gotten a food dryer. When I feel I am not going to use produce in time, it goes into the dryer, and it can later be used in soups, etc.)
Do you feel that you are buying items that you don’t need at all? (For example, quitting drinking sugary soda is a way to save money while cutting empty calories.)
Are there specific items, such as luxury foods, that make up a disproportionate amount of the total cost?
My quick tips for saving money on food:
Quit eating wheat (www.wheatbellyblog.com). Doing so eliminates the majority of processed foods from your life (saves money) and greatly reduces impulse eating and overall calorie intake (saves money).
Don’t drink your calories. Most caloric beverages, including some pseudo-healthy ones like orange juice, are really a waste of money and make you fat to boot. Full-fat dairy is OK (I don’t drink milk, but I do buy the big carton of organic cream at Costco and use it various recipes and in coffee).
Even if you eat wheat, don’t buy processed foods. They just cost more than buying the basics like meat and potatoes and making them yourself.
Food dryer, per above.
When in doubt, freeze it. I eat a lot of soup, and if vegetables are starting to go, I just throw them in a container and put them in soup later.
Take a month where you decide to eat as cheaply as you possibly can: call it the austerity month. Eat your pantry bare, live on rice and beans and oatmeal. Once you’ve seen what’s the lowest you can go and 1) how much it saves and 2) what that life is like, you can decide what you like enough to add back in.
Generally speaking, there are some things we spend money on because we really find it worth it, and other things we spend money on because our parents did, or because we just think it’s normal, or because we don’t see an alternative. Stripping down to absolute necessity for a month will let you see which is which.
Keep an eye on the trash, and see what you throw out. If people aren’t eating all of what you server, don’t make so much of that. If something gets thrown out because it goes bad, don’t buy so much of it.
Here in America, I’d say the main change you could make to cut down food costs would be to buy your own ingredients, cook your own food, and save the sugar for dessert, but I don’t know how much processed, prepackaged food buying there is in Israel. There are communities here in the inner city in the US where it’s pretty much impossible for people to buy basic ingredients like fresh produce, and the only kind of food they can pick up on their public transit commute is pre-made food, packaged meals and junk food, which is more expensive (in addition to probably not as healthy…).
Exactly. If you plan your menu around what you already have in the refrigerator and freezer and what is on sale, you save lots.
You can also decide to stock up on stuff that is cheap. We like Starbucks beans, and when it goes to about $4 a bag less than regular price we stock up - and date the bags so we can do first in first out on them. Ditto for paper towels and toilet paper.
Other stuff: An advantage of a list is that you can write the list in the order you go through the store, which means you can skip entire aisles. Faster and avoids temptation.
Be aware of what good prices are, which are not the same as heavily advertised prices or complicated prices. Our store often advertises the price as 3 for some amount - but you can buy one if you check the fine print. It also doesn’t mean it is cheap. Groceries make money off the innumerate.
By far, the largest portion of my food dollars was being spent on meat. By switching to beans/lentils, I saved a fortune. At Costco, a large bag of dried beans is 76 cents/lb, and the regular supermarket has at least one type on sale for $1.00/lb weekly. When I do want meat, I get only what’s on sale and eat plenty of other things with it to stretch it.
The difference in cost between flour vs oatmeal is negligible. So is the rate at which you’re going though mayonnaise. It’s the stuff like meat vs beans, soda/bottled water vs tap water, chips and snacks vs eating your food at meals, that’ll make the biggest dent in your food spending.
Save your grocery receipts and look at what you’re spending your money on. Did you really *need *that $4 bag of chips? Or that $5 12-pack of Coke?
Buy staples on sale, buy store brands when you can, when something is on sale stock up. Eggs are a great value. Beans and lentils are a bargain. Look up recipes for these if you don’t have many in your repertoire.
I think shopping with a list does help - I get what’s on my list, and anything I normally use that’s on a good sale, and that’s it - very little impulse buying.
I have four large supermarkets within walking distance of me; I shop at the cheapest one for most stuff, but I go to Safeway for a few particular items because I like their quality the best (Safeway has the best dairy of all of the stores around me).
That was going to be one of my suggestions, too - buying processed, frozen or canned foods are usually more expensive than making something from scratch.
That said, I buy frozen vegetables almost exclusively, because the vegetables we actually eat are cheaper than the fresh vegetables I never get around to preparing and end up throwing on the compost pile.
Looking for the price per 100 grams on the shelf is also very useful; for example, the cereal my husband eats is, for some reason, always cheaper per gram in a smaller box (breaking all the rules of shopping), so we buy the smaller box. I always check the per gram prices on different brands and when things go on sale, too - sometimes the sale price is still higher than a different brand not on sale, etc.
A couple more notes: single-serving things are almost universally much more expensive - I buy larger things and portion it out into cheap little baggies and freeze it.
I don’t know if you eat out much - groceries are almost always cheaper than eating out, even if you’re buying the good stuff at the grocery store.
BOGOs (Buy One, Get One) are great, as long as it’s for something you normally use, and you can use up both items before one expires. We have quite a bit of storage space in our house, so I can buy larger quantities of things when they go on sale (and things always go on sale).
I go to Safeway because their service is so much better. Lucky’s might be a bit cheaper in some things, but any change from the rules requires a manager, and they are understaffed in the checker department. The Safeway checkers are empowered to do the right thing. Plus, when we had guide dog puppies they were wonderful.
Lucky’s had their self service atm card readers hacked - and apparently didn’t give a crap. People we know who had their pins stolen were told to go change their bank account.
Supermarkets are conducting all kinds of consumer research with their ads, They have prices for 10 items, B2G3, B3G2, etc, etc. Figuring out the real price takes a lot of math. You know they are studying the data.
If you have time to analyze the cost per ounce (or other unit of choice) for different categories of items, such as shelf stable groceries, produce, meat, milk, and cleaning products, you will probably find that certain markets do much better on certain categories than others. If you have any time left over after doing that analysis, you can target your shopping to the store most likely to have good prices on certain things.
For example, in my experience the big box club stores have better prices on shelf-stable stuff and cleaning products but equal or worse prices on everything perishable.