Grocery shopping on a budget

Like most people, I dislike being constrained by a budget. I want what I want, when I want it, darn it! But in reality, being on a budget hasn’t meant that I have had to do without things that I want. It just makes me have to be creative in order to get them.

I’m very pleased with the results of today’s grocery shopping trip, so I thought I’d blog about it. I’d love to hear about your great budget-constrained shopping trips, too!

Our grocery budget (aka kitchen-and-bathroom budget, as it has to cover food, anything needed for food prep and cleaning, and personal care items) is $200 per month. That’s $25 per person, per week. I like to spend about $120 of it in a single trip early in the month, to minimize all those “extra” things I want to pick up every time I walk into a grocery store. One trip = one time I have to resist temptation.

So with $120 in my mind for my target dollar amount, I went to the grocery store. I start the trip by spending 98 cents on a fountain drink to sip as I walk through the store. This REALLY cuts down on the “that sounds good” type of temptation. I adore Coca-cola, and would rather have some of that than almost everything else. And if I’m currently drinking something awesome, I am much less tempted by anything else in the whole store. I discovered this by accident, but use the knowledge almost every time now.

Next, I always start in the vegetable section. I can fill half my cart in that section of the store, and that eliminates the “this doesn’t look like enough food” temptation to add things to the cart. I have learned how to cook such inexpensive items as cauliflower, cabbage, and carrots. I can do each several different ways, and when cooked well they are really delicious and filling. For less than 75 cents per pound, sometimes as low as 45 cents per pound.

Then on to the meat section. I don’t pay more than $3 per pound for “everyday” meat. We will sometimes splurge on steak one night if we have the money at the end of the month, but for the standard grocery trip my limit is $3 per pound. Recently there has been boneless/skinless chicken breast for $1.98 per pound. And pork carnitas (uncured pork, rather than a cured ham) for $1.68 per pound. I like those a lot. I did pay $2.99 a pound for tilapia today, that’s a decent price for it. (A tiny vent: I live in OREGON, so why can I not find fresh fish for a reasonable price??? It was cheaper in Colorado, where you know it’s spent time and gas and wages to get there. I have no clue how that happens. So I have to spend almost $3 per pound for *frozen* fish imported from somewhere else. Sigh. Vent over.)

Hubby and I do like peanuts, and the ones in the shell are about $1.10 per pound today, so I pick up several pounds of those. And I love the bulk bins for spices, it lets me try new ones by buying a tiny amount. Today’s new spice is curry, which I have never cooked with on its own, only in a packaged mix. About 35 cents for this experiment. Hubby likes his whole milk, and I like sharp cheddar cheese. The deli has fresh sliced turkey for $1.98 per pound today! Incredible price, so I pick up 3 lbs, wrapped in one-pound packages for easier freezing. This is an unexpected hit to the budget, I don’t normally need lunchmeat in December when hubby isn’t in school and packing a lunch, but it will store well and I think I have the money since I’m finding really good deals today. This deli is nice in that the display case shows not only the front of the meat packaging, but also the back with the nutrition information. It’s amazing the junk a lot of companies add to their lunchmeat. Carrageenan? Hydrolysed soy proteins? It’s MEAT, folks. Just slice it up, please, and skip the artificial colorings and other junk. The turkey that was on sale was pretty good, at least the junky ingredients were *after* the “contains 2% or less” part of the ingredients list.

So far I have only shopped the “fringes” of the grocery store. But we do want a few convenience foods that are found deep in the aisles. By this time, my cart is looking pretty full. And I’m aware I’m getting close to my grocery limit, so the temptation to pick up anything not on my list is getting less and less. A quick stop for frozen burritos. And packaged mac-n-cheese. And tuna fish. (This stuff is GOOD, why do they hide it in the aisles?) Bottled spaghetti sauce, because I just can’t find a good homemade one yet. And a case of Coke. (You saw that one coming, didn’t you?)

On the way to the checkout I passed a display case of ground beef. That’s odd, beef is normally in the back of the store. I eyeballed the back-of-the-store ground beef today, but at $3.68 per pound I wasn’t even going to look closer. This display was odd, so I walked up to it and saw… ten-pound chubbs of ground beef for $1.88 a pound! Seriously? I look all around, expecting to see a “when you spend two thousand dollars in one trip” type of sign, but there wasn’t one. It’s just normal (but extremely long) chubbs of ground beef for a ridiculously low price. I’ve never seen it that low here in Oregon before. It’s only 75% lean, but so was the $3.68 stuff in the back of the store. For more lean, you’ll pay more than $4 per pound. So I stand there in the aisle and stare at the groceries in my cart. I’ve gotten pretty good at estimating the amount I’m spending, and my gut tells me I have between $100 and $120 in my cart already, and I don’t want to spend more than $120. I mean, I have it if I need it, but I don’t know if this deal counts as “needing”. It’s not like it’s crackers or dessert that definitely are just “wants”. Like the deli turkey, if I can afford this it will mean I have some good grocery savings next month, but it’s not something I need this month. So it’s borderline. I decide to take it up to the register with me, and see my complete total before deciding. I also decide that if I need to put something back, both the $6 package of fish as well as this inexpensive ground beef are potential candidates. It’s good to have options.

To make a long story short, my bill was $97 before the two packages of meat, so I got to add both of them. (Yay!) My attempt at spending $120 was spot on when the register showed a final tally of $120.75!

Ready for the list of what I got for my $120.75?

10 lbs ground beef
6 lbs chicken breast
6 lbs sliced turkey breast
4 lbs pork
2 lbs fish
2 cans tuna fish
5 lbs onions
4 lbs carrots
2 heads cauliflower
8 Roma tomatoes
6 green peppers
6 large bananas
1 package celery
1 head cabbage
2 bags salad greens
1 apple
5 lbs potatoes
Curry spice
Garlic powder
1 gallon milk
2 lbs sharp cheddar cheese
3 lbs peanuts in shell
10 lbs spaghetti sauce
Nestle Quik powder
2 lbs egg noodles
4 packs Ramen noodles
16 frozen burritos
4 packs mac-n-cheese
1 bottle Ranch dressing

I’m sure you’ve noticed a lack of some things that are considered staples in the typical diet. But I’m sure you’ve also noticed that at least twice I purchased things this month that I don’t expect to eat until next month. Right now I don’t need any bread, because there are at least 4 loaves in the freezer from an earlier sale. I don’t need butter because I have approximately 6 lbs of it in the freezer from the Thanksgiving sale (butter that was normally almost $4 per pound was $1.88 per pound). I don’t need breakfast cereal for hubby because he has at least 3 boxes of it in the cabinet from a similar sale. Same with spaghetti noodles. (Wondered what I was going to do with all that sauce, didn’t you?) I have pounds and pounds of those noodles already.

I ran into some Master’s Commission students I know on my way out the door. They couldn’t stop commenting on my huuuuuge chubb of ground beef. It seemed to amaze them that I got it for $1.88 per pound. I explained the concept of buying in bulk, and told them they could do it too if they combined their grocery money and agreed on what to get. I don’t know if they’ll think about doing that, but at least I said it. They’re great guys, and like other college age guys, they’re *always* hungry!

So now you know my budget shopping strategy. Buying in bulk and building your meals around items that are on sale are two staples of it, but they are the commonly known ones. Everyone can use more techniques to avoid temptation buying, and hopefully you found a few in this post. Being able to tell how much you are spending at any given moment is a skill worth cultivating (or keep a running total on the paper with your grocery list, whichever works for you). Anything to bring that grocery bill down to manageable levels is worth talking about and sharing with others!

Now I’m off to finish putting away more than 5 paper bags stuffed full with groceries…


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