Cutting the grocery bill

When we lived in San Francisco in 1997/98 I read a book by Jonni McCoy, called Miserly Moms.  This book is all about how a family can live on one income by cutting expenses. In Ms. McCoy’s book, the emphasis is on reducing the weekly grocery bill.

I thought it was interesting to read at the time, but with a combined income well into six digits, I wasn’t too concerned about reducing grocery costs at the time.

Fast forward to 2002 when times were pretty tough for us and I was looking for any way possible to save money and stay afloat without dipping into our retirement savings.  With three toddlers I found the frugal recipes the most helpful, but did not have the energy to follow her shopping strategy as I was often shopping with three toddlers in tow. (She stipulates that for her strategy to work, the kids must not accompany the shopper!)

Essentially by following the loss leaders (the reduced price items designed to suck you into the store), shopping at three or four stores, and planning your meals around those loss leaders, Ms. McCoy maintains a reduction of 40-50 percent in one’s grocery bill can be achieved.

I saw a recent update to the book (2009) so I borrowed it from the library.  I figured every penny we saved is that much more to put toward the house.  So I spent a few days reading it again.

I found it intriguing and decided to give her theory a try.  Here’s what I found:

Loss leaders are often on items I don’t buy.  For example, packages of processed meats, like stuffed chicken breast.   I generally avoid them, not just because of the cost, but because of what’s added to them.  So stuffed chicken breasts on sale for a really great price are usually still more expensive than plain chicken breasts and the ingredients to stuff into it AND there are all sorts of additives, never mind how they are raised.

There aren’t enough loss leader items at the three stores I chose to shop at in Kamloops–The Superstore, Safeway and Save On– to actually plan a menu around.

Ms. McCoy also advocates keeping price lists so one is able to spot really great prices and buy in bulk. I already do this so I was pleased I was ahead on that score.

She’s not a big fan of coupons, although she admits combined with loss leaders, they can be really important in reducing costs. However, in Canada, we do not have the coupon system that exists in the states.  Most coupons in Canada are on items that are newly introduced by brand name companies…and I don’t often buy brand names.

Last week I went into Kamloops on errands and prepared my shopping list ahead of time, with the loss leaders duly noted on my list.  I found Royal Gala apples for $0.80 per pound, parsley for $0.49 a bunch, tomatoes (our crop was pitiful this year) for $1.00 per pound and hearty whole wheat bread for $1.25 per loaf.  These items (along with a few others), I purchased at Safeway.

At the Superstore I purchased a few of the loss leaders they had listed in their online flyer but the only thing at Save On that I was remotely interested in was pickles and it didn’t seem worth it to drive to the store for one item.  I ended up buying the rest of my shopping items from the Superstore.

My feeling was that I did well at Safeway. I went in with just the loss leader items on my list and felt for the $60 I spent I came out with more than I thought usual.  I spent another $299 (and received a $25 gift card) at Superstore, but my cart felt the same as usual…this probably isn’t surprising since I had to buy all my remaining items there.

Complicating matters is that we buy our meat locally at about the same price as we’d get it in the store. According to Ms. McCoy, one should never buy meat (or any item) at full price.  We’ll continue to buy meat locally so I’m not sure I will ever be able to reduce our grocery cost by the range she claims. 

Buying whole wheat bread on sale for $1.25 a loaf is pretty good…for store bought bread.  But when I make home made bread I know I’m ahead of that.  I bought all my yeast vacuum packed several years for about $1.89 a kilo. (O.K. that was a great deal, but I thought I was buying a 2 kg package and I ended up with 48 kilos..I’m still working down the yeast, despite having given some away).  I look for pretty sharp prices on flour and buy specialty grains in bulk.  Even if my bread is on par in terms of price with store bought bread, I believe mine is simply better.  The wrinkle in this, is that now that I’m busier with work, and continuing with working on the house, it’s harder and harder to find the time to bake…

Most weeks when I buy more than $250 at the Superstore, they “give” me a gift card for $25.  This is an automatic 10% savings, which is nothing to sneeze at, in my opinion. At Christmas, the store often gives a $50 gift card if you spend $400, making the return even better.  Aiming for fewer, big shops, makes shopping the loss leaders more difficult.  Ms. McCoy’s stretegy hinges on shopping weekly, to get a variety of loss leader savings.

I find that the more whole foods we stick too, the less her strategy comes into play.  Granted, starting with whole foods reduces your grocery bill enormously anyway.  The answer, of course, is to grow and raise your own food (which is always less expensive) and not depend on grocery store shopping.  The busier a person is, however, the less time to devote to this.   Everything’s a trade-off. 

I’ve often wondered how our grocery bill compares to other people’s monthly expenditure.  I usually stock up every two weeks and can spend $300 each time.  I do spend slightly less in summer.  Our food bill has ranged from $450-$650 each month. 

I’m going to continue to be aware of the loss leaders and examine my grocery shopping habits for the next several weeks to see if anything changes.

How much do you spend a month on food?

Eating out of the freezer/pantry…continued.

After a month of eating out of the pantry/freezer we have finally started to see a noticeable difference in our stores…
Our chest freezer was full a month ago and is now about half empty. I went through it fairly methodically a few days ago to see what I had left:

1) 7 of our home grown chickens, various sizes (we started with 22 last May.

2) 15 packages of whole wheat English muffins (I buy these for $1 a pack at the Superstore, which puts them on sale every month or so). They are delicious in the morning with a poached fresh egg from our chickens. Very filling and packed with protein.

3) 3-4 pounds of carmelized tomatoes. I bought $40 in local Roma tomatoes last fall after a friend (D’Arcy Feller) showed me and a few other 4-H moms this really great recipe one evening when a 4-H meeting was held at his house. I don’t think I ever posted about it…I will have to do that. These tomatoes are scrumptious on fresh bread, sandwiches, etc. However, I still have a lot left!

4) 2 lbs of sundried tomatoes from our garden.

5) 6-10 package of beef stew meat.

6) 4 pork shoulder roasts

7) 2-3 packages of beef ribs

8) 2-3 pounds of frozen beans

9) 10 pounds of frozen pumpkin (Chris has faithfully frozen all pumpkins we’ve been given, but we never seem to use it; I need to find a pumpkin soup recipe)

10) 2 cans of orange juice

11) 3 chuck roasts

12) A family size serving of prepared stew.

13) 8-10 single servings of various leftovers, including macaroni beef, 18 bean soup (overflow from the inside freezer).

14) 7-8 pounds of frozen corn, bought locally from our friends, the Kempters, last fall.  Yum.  We will definitely use this up before next harvest!

I have been going through and using up pantry items as well, including flours, pastas and beans and various spices.  In or canning shelves we are still making good use of homemade jam, applesauce, sweet pickles, salsa and apple juice.

I’m estimating that in the last month we’ve spent about $200 in groceries, mostly on fresh vegetables
and fruit.

I’m now looking for inspiration to effectively use up those items that remain in the freezer or pantry. We are not a roast family so I’ve been looking for ingenious ways to use up the meat. I’ve been cutting up the roast pork and making several meals worth of souvlaki (then making pork stock from bones; wonton soup is in my future!) We’ve been using the chuck roasts for stir fries but it’s a bit tough and Chris suggested we turn it into hamburger, which is a good idea. We eat approximately two chickens per month and each chicken gives us at least two main meals, plus several days of chicken soup.

I’m looking for a way to use the stew meat (not traditional stew, I’m getting sick of it). I’d also love a great way to use up the pumpkin, either in soup or in bread or muffins.

Why are we doing this? Well, firstly it’s incredibly satisfying to apply our frugal and environmentally aware principals to our dining table. I read a study once that showed that 20 percent of most household grocery purchases were wasted (veggies going rotten in the fridge, out of date food, etc.). I suspect it’s a rare person indeed who never throws food out, regardless of whether they have a stocked pantry or freezer…
Our second reason is financial…we are trying to live frugally and mindfully and it feels very responsible to spend time making the most of what we have.

Doing this takes time and effort, something that most people feel they don’t have. I know when we were running the business full tilt there was NO way I would have been able to think about our food and how we make the most of it…

Even if you are busy, I would encourage you to look through your food storage areas and pick two items that have been there a while. Maybe a cut of meat or a type of pasta, or even frozen vegetables or fruit, that with a small amount of effort, could save you money and help make the best use of your food resources. You’d be surprised at how satisfying it is.

In the meantime, please pass along any suggestions for meals!

One teabag left!

My title says it all…I have one teabag left (and one mint teabag for Chris).  Please see my post below about eating from pantry and freezer if you are really confused!

It took me a month and I had fun a few times trying to guess the “mystery” tea.  I still don’t know what one kind was and because it had no tags or identifying marks, I was at a loss.  There seemed to be a lot of it, which makes me think it was something I bought on a whim and ignored. 

There was nothing I drank that I had to choke down (although a few I added honey to).

Thankfully all the meat in the freezer is labelled.