Friday, February 25, 2011

Saving on groceries, part 1: The Basics

As part of my resolution to save money this year, I wanted to work on tackling my grocery budget a little, and I thought I would run a mini-series on ways to spend less on groceries. Before we can get started on juicy insider tricks, though, we have to make sure we have our basics in line. Make sure you consider all of the following:

Your budget. A lot of bloggers talk about starting with your budget as if that were an easy task. Before you can cut back on your grocery spending, you need to know three things: how much you can spend, how much you do spend, and how much you want to spend. If you haven’t been actively budgeting so far, this may involve a lot of math and spreadsheets, and at least sitting down with some receipts or bank statements. You can’t just take someone else’s grocery budget and shoot for that because everyone’s situation is different. You need to actually do all the work.

Your priorities. Is it important to you to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables? To have meat every day? To buy some things organic? Or are you just trying to get everyone fed? Wherever you are, and whatever you want to do, is okay, but it’s going to affect how much you can save and how much you need to spend. This is one reason why comparing yourself to other people is not useful.
Your repertoire. What do you and your family actually eat? What products do you use? If you regularly make only 5 different meals, and they are affordable for you and it works for your family, there’s really nothing particularly wrong with that. Use that list of meals to make your grocery list and stop buying stuff you aren’t going to use, no matter how cheap it is. However, if you are interested in trying new recipes, you can save money by planning meals around the sales. I love allrecipes ingredient search for this; it allows you to search for recipes based on what ingredients you want included (or not included).

Your pantry. If you are starting from scratch and don’t have any food, you are obviously going to spend a little more on staples than is someone who has a fully stocked pantry. If you have a stocked pantry, take inventory. Make sure you aren’t rebuying things just because you can’t find them, and see whether certain things are accumulating because you are buying them without any real purpose or intention.

Your pricepoints. One reason that it is useless to compare yourself or your budget to other people is that grocery prices vary so widely from one area of the country to another. If you're just starting out, you could consider making a pricebook - essentially, you track the prices of your most commonly purchased items over time and at different stores. If you don't have the time for that, at least develop an awareness for the "normal" price and the "good" price for the things you buy all the time. There's no way to know whether a deal saves you money unless you know what you're paying now.

Your time. How much time do you really want to invest in lowering your grocery bill? Do you have the time to go to several stores a week? To dig through forums, or visit a few blogs? Remember to search for that balance in your life instead of trying to meet someone else’s challenge.

So where am I in all this? I currently have a pretty well stocked pantry and a pretty fixed repertoire of meals, but I’d like to try a few new meals. I have a lot of different spices that I would like to plan some meals around. I’m currently spending about $300 a month, but would like to modestly lower that to $250, while keeping as much of my food natural and organic as possible. I am ready to start shopping at more than one store a week if I need to, as long as I can get in and out quickly.

Want to join in? What are your grocery goals?