Easy Steps to Reduce Your Grocery Bill by 40 Percent

Dollars & Sense on 08.03.11
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Photo Credit: Sarah Fernandez

According to the USDA, in 2011 it should cost me $523.70 per month to feed my family of two adults and two children ages two and five a nutritious diet on a thrifty budget. To feed the same family on a low-cost plan would cost $667.20; a moderate-cost plan would cost $823.60; and a liberal plan would cost $1,018.80. I have a feeling that a lot of people out there gasped when they read that thrifty number because they are easily spending over $1,000 per month on groceries. I see the other people in the grocery store whose carts are piled so high that just the slightest wrong move could mean an aisle blocking disaster. I would say that I fall closer to the thrifty budget of $523.70, but my guess is that my family eats just as much and just as high quality food (I often buy organic) as the family who spends more than double what we do. Oh, and I have a dog to feed and a child in diapers that factor into my number as well. Here are a few of my tricks that help me do it before I even hit the coupons.

Reign in the Shopping

It may seem like a blaringly obvious first step, but I don't over-buy. According to the book American Wasteland by Jonathan Bloom, Americans throw out 40-percent of the food they buy. Say what?! That right there could be the difference between the USDA's liberal plan and the low-cost plan. The fact is that it's possible to feed my family for $523.70 so if I were to spend over $1,000 per month, I would undoubtedly be throwing out some of the food. We are certainly not starving or even remotely waifish so the thought of eating almost twice as much food as we do now seems absolutely impossible.

Part of the trick to not over-buying is to not do a big grocery shopping trip every week where you'll pick up unnecessary incidentals. Instead I do my big shopping trips of between $150 and $175 (I do tend to save between $50-80 each trip with grocery coupons and sales) every other week to get the staples of our pantry, fridge, and household items as well as enough fresh fruit and veggies as we can use in a week or before they'll go bad. I make sure to check the dates on the packaging in the store to make sure the perishables will either last me the two weeks or can be frozen if I don't think I'll use them within the first few days.  I make one or two other small trips to the store or farmer's market to fill in between shopping trips with more fruit, veggies, and milk.

Get Organized

Of course, once you get the food home you also have to ensure that it doesn't go bad. I can't say that I never throw anything out, but I can say that when I keep my fridge and pantry well organized it's much more likely that everything will get used up before it's time. I find there are a few ways to make sure this happens.

Organized Fridge
Photo Credit: Sarah Fernandez

Remove Excess Packaging- If items are individually packaged within a box, get rid of the outer box. That way when it's only half full, it won't be taking up twice as much space as it needs and you can clearly see the other items in the fridge or pantry behind it.

Store Items in Clear Plastic Containers- Nobody likes to open the dreaded container of the unknown. Is that actually yogurt or did we just put some leftovers in it? If you can't see what it is, it's likely it's never going to get eaten. I like the Rubbermaid Easy Find Lids storage containers that all snap together. For pasta and rice, I use lidded glass jars.

Designate Areas for Different Food Groups- Instead of just throwing things in the cabinet wherever they fit, designate a shelf for snacks, for dry goods, for coffee and tea, and so on. That way you'll always know what you've got on hand within seconds and won't have to go digging for things or accidentally buy double because you thought you were out of something.

Organized Cabinets
Photo Credit: Sarah Fernandez

You'll still have to clean out the fridge and cabinets every once in a while, but if you can see what's in there, it's a lot easier and takes just a few minutes. If you see a piece of fruit going bad, toss it before it causes the rest of the surrounding fruit to go bad. What takes just a few seconds will save you a lot of money.

There's Still Plenty to Eat

The downside to not overbuying is all of the naysayers (you know the husbands and kids) who claim there is no food in the house because packages don't fall out of the cabinet every time you open the door. While my cupboards aren't overflowing, when I hear that there is nothing for breakfast, I can still rattle off at least seven options.  I think when we have so many options, we often just end up eating more and still throwing a lot out.

If you still want to spend over $1,000 on groceries, you might also want to try taking $400 in cash and throwing it in the garbage can to see how you feel after that. Not over-buying also happens to be much better for the planet if we don't waste all the energy it takes to get the food that we end up throwing away and then paying the garbage man to cart it off to a landfill.

Of course, not all families are the same dynamic as mine, but have no fear, the USDA has recommendations for families of all sorts of sizes and ages so see what it could be costing you to feed your family versus what it is costing you by checking out their chart.

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