The Budget101.com Guide to Groceries under $300 a Month- a complete, definitive guide to getting control of your grocery spending, understanding manipulative marketing by retailers and simple tricks to save thousands per year on groceries.
Introduction by Liss
A little over twenty years ago, several lively ladies, with whom I chatted with daily online, convinced me that I should start a website and share my recipes with the world. These ladies, like myself, were seeking flavorful yet dirt cheap recipes that would feed their families without breaking their limited budgets.
At the time of its creation, our entire household income for our family of four was under $20,000 a year. Like most families, we had a mortgage, a car payment and plenty of not-so-friendly bill collectors hounding us on a daily basis.
I was a stay at home mom with an infant and a toddler while my hard-working husband struggled to keep his small business afloat in an economy that wasn’t exactly small-business friendly.
Following a harrowing review of our household budget which included the mortgage, car payment, vehicle insurance, house insurance, telephone, utilities, garbage removal, groceries, and dial-up internet service, it occurred to me that the only thing I really had any control over was our food expense.
I quickly realized that if I could find ways to cut our grocery bill, I could save the money that we’d been spending each month and apply it to our overdue bills, without my husband even realizing it. Slowly but surely, I had found a way to dig us out of debt. More than that, I had found a way to help other families in the same situation get control of their household finances as well.
I released an eBook, “How to feed a family of 4 for under $200 a month”. While many of the items included in our original eBook still apply today, there have been a number of changes over the past two decades!
As such, here is the Budget101™ 2021 guide to groceries under $300 a month, which will delve into strategies for saving on groceries, avoiding the dirty tricks retailers play to get you to spend more money without your consent, as well as grocery budgeting tips-n-tricks to help get you started on your way!
Guide to Groceries under $300 a Month
Brief Outline of What We’ll Cover
1. Grocery Expense 101
2. Menus & How they help your budget
3. How to Plan a Menu
4. Time Saving Tips
5. Saving Money on Groceries
6. Freezer Organization
7. Dirty Tricks Retailers Play
8. Deceptive Packaging
9. Make Your Own
10. Labeling Homemade Mixes
11. Copycat & Clone Recipes
13. Types of Coupons
14. Savings Club Cards
16. Brand Loyalty
17. More Grocery Budget Tips
Before you can learn how to reduce your grocery expenses, you have to know exactly how much money you are currently spending each month.
According to the US Government, the standard family of 4 spends an average of $850 to $1,288 a month on groceries alone.
By reducing your monthly grocery bill to $300 or less, you would save between $550-$988 each month to apply to back debts. That’s a yearly savings of $6,600- $11,856 that you’re already used to spending!
Imagine paying down over ten thousand dollars worth of debt in one year just by altering your grocery spending! We did, you can too.
Let’s Begin, Moment of Truth
Grab a calculator, a pen or pencil and your last large grocery receipt. Go down through the list of items and mark your receipt as follows:
· Place a ‘•’ beside every convenience and snack food item
· Place an ‘X’ beside every fresh fruit or vegetable item
· Place a ‘*’ beside every Meat, Fish or Poultry Item
What are Convenience Foods?
Convenience food items are items that can be made at home, but are prepackaged to “save time”. Examples: Cake mixes, cookie mixes, muffin mixes, sauce mixes (gravy mix, etc), seasoning blends, salad dressings, condiments, side dishes (like flavored rice or noodle blends), premade frostings, canned soups, frozen dishes that need reheating (pot pies, frozen dinners, etc), chips, crackers, cookies, individual serving size items such as 100 calorie snack packs, granola bars, breakfast pastries, etc.
Carefully add up the total of the convenience items, meats, and fresh produce; which category did you spend the most money on? If you’re like most families, the majority of your monthly grocery expense is going towards convenience items, which right about now probably doesn’t seem very convenient!
Planning a weekly Menu can seem a bit overwhelming at first, after all, that’s 3 meals a day, 21 meals per week, 1,092 meals per year and if you have a family of 4, that’s a whopping 4,368 meals! There are numerous ways to plan menus, the evening before, a week in advance, bi-weekly, or monthly.
Menu, or Meal Planning, as it’s often called, is simply jotting down the meals that you intend to serve your family over a period of time. There are several different ways of creating your menu plan each has its own merits.
What Kind of Menu?
*Weekly Menus: This method allows you to take advantage of weekly loss leaders at your favorite grocery stores. It is the best method to use if you have a very limited budget as it allows you to take advantage of seasonal offerings.
· Loss Leaders are items that stores sell (at a profit loss) in order to draw consumers into the store. The premise is that the consumer will be so overwhelmed with the great store layout and offerings that they’ll fill their baskets with additional items while they’re there.
While this particular type of plan makes it easier to take advantage of the wonderful loss leader sales each and every week, it also happens to be the plan that has the most temptation of going over-budget, because you’re in the store more often.
Each and every time you go into the store, you are more prone to be taken in by the various manipulation tactics that retailers play on consumers. We’ll cover that in-depth a little later on.
*Bi-Weekly Menus: This method works well if your family eats the same items for breakfast and lunch each week. For example, perhaps the kids eat cereal every day for breakfast and lunch at school. The bi-weekly menu plan allows for planning dinners for 2 weeks in advance.
This type of plan means you’re spending $125-150 per trip, on average and makes it a little easier to plan for bulk meat purchases, while still having the opportunity to take advantage of loss leader sales.
*Monthly Menus: This is a bit more difficult (unless you use a rotating menu) and requires a bit more pre-planning as the menu is not based on the weekly sales, but bulk purchases.
This plan certainly means you spend less time in the stores, which means less impromptu purchases. However, it also means that you don’t get to take advantage of as many loss leader sales and you’re probably going to be eating more frozen or canned produce, rather than fresh.
If you have a garden that produces well and you home-can or freeze your own vegetables and fruits, then this style of menu planning may be the easiest for your family.
*Rotating Menus: This is the least time-consuming method of menu planning, but also the most boring. Generally speaking, a rotating menu consists of 15-20 meals that are within the family’s budget. These same meals are eaten and over again (hence the “rotating” menu). This type of menu works well for families with very picky eaters, or severe allergies.
*Day of the Week Menu – This plan is used when you eat a certain item on a certain day of the week. For example, Monday night is chicken, Wednesday is Spaghetti day, Friday is pizza night, etc. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you eat the same meal every week, just that the menu uses that main ingredient on that particular night. This method is a great beginner method for menu planning.
Free Printable Menu Plans:
Why Plan a Menu?
The Goal of Menu/ Meal planning is to reduce the grocery budget to under $300 a month, without the use of coupons.
- Planning a menu saves money by reducing impromptu visits to the grocery store, which often results in impulse spending.
- Menu planning also improves your family’s nutritional intake as it forces you to be more aware of what you are serving, rather than grabbing the first thing you can get your hands on that will fill the gnawing hole in your belly.
- Time Saver- as mentioned above, despite the fact that it takes a few minutes of time to plan a menu, it’s also a considerable time saver. How many times have you stood staring into the fridge after work (or a long day at home taking care of little ones) wondering what to serve your family for dinner?
Rather than wandering aimlessly around your kitchen every evening peering into the cupboards and then into the fridge, back and forth, whilst the other members of your family raid the cupboards for anything and everything to munch on while you’re trying to prepare dinner; Dinner will already be decided.
How to Start Menu Planning
Start by taking an inventory of what you have on hand in your pantry, fridge, and freezer. (I’m not talking about a physical list, just a general overview so you know what you have available to use).
The list serves several purposes first off; you might be shocked that you have more food on hand than you first thought. Secondly, it will give you an idea of what you need to purchase in order to complete various dishes on your menu.
How to Plan a Menu
If you have a fully stocked pantry of basic items, Congratulations, the battle is nearly won!
- Make a list of what your family absolutely WON’T eat. I feel it is imperative to have an idea of what they won’t eat. Generally, this list is considerably smaller than what they “will eat” and makes it easier when trying new recipes. As you’ve probably already discovered, purchasing food items that your family members dislike, is a complete waste of money because it’s more likely to end up in the trash.
- If your children are old enough, it’s worthwhile to get them in on the process of meal planning. Give them a piece of paper and have them write 8-10 meal ideas that they’d like to see on the dinner table. Including the children in the meal planning process greatly reduces “picky eater” issues.
- Last but not least, choose what type of menu plan will work best for your family, a weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, or day of the week plan. This will make a difference in how you divvy up your Monthly grocery budget.
Writing the Menu/ Meal Plan
Scan through the sales flyers of your favorite grocery stores and jot down several meal ideas based on those specials. If you prefer the online version of the flyers, a complete list with direct links to the weekly ads is available here.
Since you already know what you have on hand in your freezer, fridge, and pantry, you know what items you have to accompany the meals or to create main dishes.
Here is an example of an ad (December 31, 2019):
If I were planning a 1-week menu plan, I would purchase the following items from the store:
5 lbs Boneless Skinless Chicken Breast…$7.45
3 lbs Apples…$1.49
2 lb Pork Chops…$5.98
Shrimp…(1 lb frozen) ..$5.89
Total Spent… $23.19
Remember as you’re planning your meals that you will be using items that you have on hand in your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer as well. We try to keep our weekly budget for 4 around $75 or less per week. As you can see so far we’re at $23.19 – Now we’ll check the flyers of other stores in our area for deals on fresh fruits and vegetables.
Celery is .99 a bunch………..$0.99
Anjou Pears .89 lb (x2)…….$1.78
Lettuce 1.29 head (x2)…… ..$2.58
Green Bell Peppers (3)……..$0.99
Potatoes 10lbs …………………$1.99
Total Spent………………. $ 9.32
At this point, I would purchase several fruits and vegetables in season, taking advantage of these great prices. Cranberries would make a lovely sauce to accompany the pork chops, lettuce, bell peppers, and celery would make a decent salad. The blueberries would make great muffins or a lovely addition to pancakes or waffles. Extra green peppers cut into slices (or carrots) would be great for snacking with homemade ranch dip.
The anjou pears are also great to snack on. So far, for our weekly total, we’re at $32.51, which leaves $42.49 for bread, milk, any seasonings, pantry items, etc.
Sample Menu Plan:
- Monday: Cranberry Stuffed Chicken, salad
- Tuesday: Pork Chop Scalloped Potato Casserole with Cinnamon glazed Carrots
- Wednesday: Chicken Enchilada’s, Dirty Rice
- Thursday: Hearty Taco Pasta Dish
- Friday: Zesty Garlic Shrimp Zoodles
On Monday- all of the chicken would go into the Crockpot or instant pot. There’s no sense in standing around in the kitchen when appliances will do the work for you!
The remainder of the chicken will go into the fridge until Wednesday when it’s quickly shredded and added to chicken enchiladas. As you may have noticed, all of the ingredients for each dish are not on the flyer.
Saving Money on Groceries
See how easy that was?! You may find that sales are good at two (or more) different stores. Many stores, such as Wal-Mart, will price match competitors.
What this means to you, is that rather than making several different stops shopping; you only need to go to one store. Bring the flyer with you that you wish to price match, (not all stores require this!), and the clerk will change the price at checkout.
In addition to saving time running from store to store you’ll be saving money on gas, which is anything but cheap!
As you may have noticed, our monthly grocery budget is $300 for a family of four, which includes 4 adults. There are weeks that we spend less, there are weeks that we spend a bit more, but our yearly average, for nearly two decades has been under $300 per month.
One way to plan this is to set aside $30 per week for fresh produce out of the budget and use the remaining $180 to purchase bulk meats and pantry staples in one trip.
Time Saving Tips
While menu planning, take into consideration how much time you have during the week to prepare the meals you’re choosing to include in your plan:
· Do you get home late from work on certain nights due to weekly meetings, excessive traffic, etc?
· Are your children in sports or activities?
· Do you have any appointments that week (such as doctors or vets, etc)?
If these types of things are in your schedule, you want to be sure you aren’t planning a 3-course meal on those nights!
For nights already bogged down with activities consider planning meals that use the Crock pot. I prefer to call these meals “Dump and Run”, where you simply dump the ingredients into the Crock pot, turn it on and dinner is ready by the time you’re done running errands, picking up junior or getting things cleaned up after a long day.
Another time-saving tip when planning your menu is to pre-plan doubles night. Some recipes are very simple to double, such as casseroles.
Rather than baking both of them at the same time, you place one of the dishes into the freezer. 9″ x 9″ Disposable foil pans work perfectly for a family of 4 and slide easily into a gallon size Ziploc bag. Pop it into your freezer and voila! You now have an instant “convenience” meal that can be placed in the oven while you’re free to make up a few homemade mixes or have a chance to catch up on other things.
Once your menu is complete, see if there are any items on it that can be prepared ahead of time, such as cutting up vegetables and bagging them for snacking or salads, divvying up large containers of yogurt into serving sizes to save time during the week, etc.
Any items that you can prepare ahead of time will save you valuable time during the busy week when you’re more likely to get overwhelmed or over-tired and run to the phone to order greasy take-out foods that kill the budget and your waistline.
Money-Saving Grocery Shopping Tips
One of the most often overlooked ways to save on the grocery budget is to purchase meats and poultry in bulk.
At warehouse clubs, in the meat department, there is usually a sign that states a “Case Price”. This is the price per pound on various cuts of meat if you purchase an entire case at one time. Keep in mind when purchasing a case of a product that it will need to be individually bagged and frozen within 48-72 hours of purchasing.
As of January 2, 2020; Boneless, Skinless chicken breast runs $3.73 in our local grocery store. However, at Sam’s Club, a case (80#) of boneless, skinless chicken is $1.72* per pound. If I purchased the chicken at the store price the total is $298.40, however, at Sam’s club I could pay just $137.60 for 80 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken breast, a whopping 53% Savings!
· 1 case of Boneless, skinless chicken individually vacuum-sealed in 1 ½ pound packages creates 53 meals.
Perhaps you don’t have a large freezer for storing eighty pounds of chicken, but chances are you DO have a friend or neighbor who might want to split a case of chicken with you or perhaps two friends and split the case into 3rds, only $45 each for 26.5 pounds of chicken.
Pork and Beef are also available at bulk case price rates.
Planned Markdown Days
In addition to Case Prices, it’s worthy to note that many grocery stores mark down meats on Mondays. If you’re looking for great meat deals, look for discounted packages of meats (they generally have a sticker with an updated “sell by” date, often highlighted in red or yellow.
Beef may appear discolored or darker “brown” rather than bright red. This doesn’t mean that the meat has gone bad, it means that the food dye (coloring) has oxidized and isn’t as bright.
*Bulk Prices – In addition to case prices, meat can often be purchased in bulk direct from independent butcher shops, or local reputable farms. While living in the North East coast of Maine, we frequently purchased a side of beef for $1.15 per pound hanging weight.
Known Bulk Distributors
- Sam’s Club
- BJ’s Wholesale Club
- Restaurant Supply Stores (URM Foods, Cash and Carry)
- Local Farmers Markets
How to Locate Bulk Distributors
Check your local phone book for farms in your area that list “wholesale” beef, pork or beefalo.
Contact the agricultural department in your State; oftentimes they have listings of farms that sell sides of beef, or whole beef.
Newspapers- most towns have a “swap shop”, or “swap and trade”, or “old-time barter” type of publication. Although the names tend to vary, the type of contents within them are the same, local folks selling organically raised, all-natural meat.
How to Store Bulk Meat
Once you’ve purchased meat in bulk, you’ll have to spend a few minutes packaging it into “meal-sized” portions, vacuum seal it (or Ziploc / freezer paper), and freeze it.
I highly recommend a vacuum sealer as they are well worth the money and vacuum-sealed foods easily last 12-18 months without losing flavor or becoming freezer burnt. Vacuum seal bags can be washed and reused as well.
When packaging meat, place each package as flat as possible in the freezer. Once it is frozen, it can be stood upright in storage bins, a simple space-saver.
Simple, inexpensive storage tote bins work great for dividing each type of meat, poultry, and fish up so that you’ll know with a single glance in the freezer what you have on hand and which items need replenishing without needing any complicated list hanging on the door.
When storing foods, practice FIFO which means “First In, First Out”; In other words, use items in the order in which they were purchased. If you have frozen chicken in the freezer, place the newly frozen packages BEHIND those so the older product is used first. This ensures that everything is used in a timely manner and you don’t accidentally eat 5-year-old chicken that is freezer burnt and tasteless.
Dirty Tricks Retailers Play
Up until now, we’ve focused on staying out of the store as much as possible; now let’s find out exactly what we’re trying to avoid!
The retail industry spends hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, collectively, to come up with various ways to manipulate consumers into purchasing their wares. While some of these tactics are well-known, many are not.
From the Not so freshly baked goods, manipulative placement tactics meant to drive up impulse purchases and unique ways of hiding shrinking product sizes so that the consumer will never notice, we’ve got them all!
Freshly Baked Goods- or Are they?
While those rows of goodies may look enticing, did you know that the majority of stores actually receive frozen goods and only need to thaw them or bake them? The “fresh” rolls you may have thought were just mixed up could be from dough prepared in a factory several weeks or months prior.
The displays serve another purpose as well- they work to stimulate the appetite of the consumer, increasing impulse purchases.
1 Manipulative Placement– Any parent knows that the worst isle in the grocery store is the cereal aisle.
The sugary smackle puffs with cute little cartoon characters are always at eye level for Junior to see, and of course, it comes with the latest greatest made in china toy, which will surely be the one you step on at 3 am when you get up to answer natures untimely call.
It’s a well-known consumer manipulation tactic to place items that are marketed towards kids on the bottom shelves, where they are more likely to see the item (and beg their parents to purchase them).
A lesser-known manipulation tactic is for merchandisers to place the more expensive non-staple items at eye level. By non-staple, we mean items that you don’t necessarily need, but that you may be swindled into buying because the packaging is attractive and you’re hungry while you’re shopping (another grocery budget no-no).
2 End Caps – Ever notice those lovely displays at the end of each aisle offering up “sales” on goodies? These are generally items that aren’t really on sale; they’re just dressed up to appear as though they are.
3 Cheap Fillers- Let’s delve a little deeper into the subject of those convenience items. Manufacturers often use sugar as filler to their products simply because it’s cheap. We’ve been taught, as consumers, that we should read the ingredients label to see where sugar ranks in the product, but the manufacturer’s fillers have learned to disguise the high levels of filler by using different types (corn syrup, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, sorbitol, maltitol, and molasses).
When Buying in Bulk might be Bad
Taking advantage of membership clubs such as Sam’s, BJ’s or Costco can be helpful in securing great deals in your budget. There are times when a “good buy” may turn out to be considerably fewer savings than you had anticipated.
Perhaps your favorite shampoo is available in bulk for $30 when the small bottle at your local store is $6.50. You may have discovered that when you’re using that bottle of shampoo – you’re literally pouring twice as much as you need from that gigantic “bargain” bottle. After all, your mind is telling you that there is plenty of product available, so you’re less likely to use the correct amount.
If you find that you have a tendency to do so, and still want to purchase the larger bottle, consider transferring it to smaller bottles (like travel-sized bottles) for use in the shower. Then refill the smaller bottles as needed. This tricks your brain into using less of the product, resulting in less waste.
Or perhaps you bought a giant bottle of soy sauce or mayonnaise because it was less expensive than the smaller bottles available at your local grocery store. Now that it’s open and sitting in the back of your fridge, you’re trying to figure out ways to use it all up before it spoils. In the meantime, it’s taking up valuable space. Items like these are not helping your budget; they’re budget busters.
Inconvenient “Convenience” Foods
Convenience foods are the items that, back in the day, folks made at home in their own kitchen; Items such as cookies, cakes, brownies, sauces, gravies, and soups. The other day, while picking up a few items at the store, I was overwhelmed by the number of cake and cookie mixes in the baking aisle.
The store no longer offered basic ingredients (in this case semolina flour for making pasta!), but they did have 26 different kinds of cake mix. In the refrigerated section, there were rows and rows of pre-made cookie dough for $2.50 a tube. The amount in the “tube” of dough equates to less than half a batch of regular cookie dough!
Consumers have been manipulated by marketing companies for decades to believe that we have less and less time and “need” these products, which are often loaded with colorings, preservatives and lack any nutritional quality.
The next time you find yourself in the grocery store, I challenge you to take a peek into the carts of folks that walk by. The majority of items within the cart are convenience items that people have been manipulated into purchasing under the false pretense that they “save time” or are easier than preparing real food at home.
Mammoth Sized Grocery Carts
Grocery store carts are getting bigger and bigger and the isles are getting wider. No, this isn’t your imagination, it’s a fact. When shopping with a large cart and you only have a few items, you’re manipulated into feeling like you don’t have enough groceries yet, so you continue shopping.
If you’re running into the store for a single item, such as a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk, forgo the cart or hand basket. It will force you to only purchase as much as you can carry and help avoid those impulse buys that make up more than 70% of our overspending each year,
Limited Quantity/Availability Trick
This one has been perfected by those late-night TV shopping networks but has unfortunately also spilled over into the grocery industry as well. Oftentimes in sales flyers, the manufacturer will add a limit to the number of items a consumer is “allowed” to purchase at the “sale” price. Were you thinking perhaps they did this to be fair to all consumers to give them a chance to get in on the deal?
Absolutely not, this is simply a psychological direct marketing tactic. Case in point, in the fall, butter goes on sale for $1.99 per pound. We generally purchase 52 pounds and freeze it as we use about 1 pound per week. Our local store has a limit of 4 lbs per person, we purchased multiple cases without the cashier batting an eyelash.
There are several ways that we, as consumers, are manipulated into purchasing items on impulse.
- Shopping While Hungry- You might have noticed that if you shop when you’re hungry, you come home with nearly double the amount of groceries; if you’re already hungry when you shop, nearly anything will look tasty. While this seems relatively harmless, if you purchased a single bag of chips at $2.29 per week to munch on while you shop (or for the ride home), you’d have wasted $119.08 per year on just chips
- Checkout Clustering- as you’re checking out have you noticed the lines of candy, mini bags of chips and often rotisserie chicken and drinks nearby? This is simply a tactic to appeal to your hunger and manipulate you into last-minute purchases.
Deceptive Packaging Woes
The costs of many of your favorite brand name products have skyrocketed out of control, chances are, due to these clever marketing techniques, you probably haven’t even noticed.
It’s the case of the shrinking package! It sounds as though it could be a Scooby-Doo caper, but the bottom line is, you’re getting less bang for your buck. Many companies are still using the same size package but are actually putting less product within it, which may leave you wondering why the food just doesn’t seem to stretch like it used to. It isn’t your imagination!
In some instances, the switch is a bit more obvious, like this one:
* Lays Potato chips bags used to contain 16 oz, yet the same size bag now contains 12 oz
While that doesn’t seem like a big deal, the same bag that may have elicited 6 servings, now only offers 4 servings, which doesn’t last as long, and worse, causes you to purchase even more to try to make up for the difference.
Sometimes the packaging change is so clever that consumers have no idea they are getting less product than before.
Looking at a product directly, it may appear as though it’s exactly the same as it’s always been, many are not, for example, if you look at a jar of brand name peanut butter, the jar height and circumference have not changed, however, if you flip the jar up and peer at the bottom of it, you’ll note a rather deep new crater that is the equivalent of 2 ounces. It certainly looks the same sitting on the shelf, but that’s the equivalent of two fewer sandwiches per jar for the same price.
A few other examples of shrinking packaging:
· Ice Cream Containers have gone from a half-gallon to 1.5 quarts
· Clorox Bleach is now 3 quarts, rather than 1 gallon.
· Scott Toilet Tissue advertises 1,000 sheets per roll & while it’s true that there are still 1,000 sheets, the sheets shrunk! They used to be 4 inches and have now been reduced to 3.7 inches.
· Ivory Dish Detergent reduced its 30 oz bottle to a bitty 24 oz bottle, “due to the rising costs of ingredients and facility expenses”. Six ounces is a full 20% difference!
Paying For Water
This one is particularly bemusing, as it plays on our desires to provide the best product possible for our families!) Are you aware that when you purchase meats you may be paying for up to 15% of “Solution”. The label may state that it’s meant to improve flavor, or increase tenderness, but in actuality, the boost is only to benefit their bottom line. To bring this into perspective, if you’re paying $1.99 for boneless, skinless chicken that contains 15% Solution, you’re really paying $2.29 per pound of actual meat; or .29¢ per pound for water “solution” that you didn’t ask for!
Unfortunately, this practice isn’t limited to meats and poultry either it’s rampant in many products. If you look closely at the nutrition label of this product, it states that the item contains 54% Juice, which means that it’s 46% water! Seriously folks, watch your labels.
Wouldn’t you rather water down the products yourself at home and save your hard-earned cash? What you see is . . . Not necessarily what you get!
Bulk packages of meats or vegetables can be great deals, but be aware of another clever tactic that is frequently used by grocery stores, packaging the best looking items on top. Generally speaking, the leaner cuts of meat are placed on top and the fattier, more wasteful cuts are placed in the middle.
While you may be thinking that you’re going to get a great deal, you might find you’re paying for pounds of fat. This tip doesn’t only apply to meats, be aware that fruits are often bagged this way, with heavily bruised fruit in the middle. These fruits are less likely to be eaten by a member of your family and may end up in the trash.
Scary Checkout Surprise – “Shelf Plus Pricing”
Here’s a little known marketing ploy that will leave you reeling, are you aware that some companies have deceptively marketed products for sale at one price and then placed a little line of text underneath the price stating “Plus 10% at checkout”?
This is an ACTUAL Ad from Food Depot that states that the price will be marked up 10% at checkout. So here you think you’re getting a great deal on Chitterlings for $5.48 when in reality you’ll be shelling out $6.02 at the register!
Unfortunately, these marketing ploys are not uncommon; they’re in products we, as consumers, see and use every single day. The average consumer is just not aware of these ever-growing deceptive practices.
The companies marketing these products have come up with some rather ingenious excuses for the clever packaging maneuvers, it started with the companies’ marketing dish detergents; they made claims that the product packaging was reduced to protect the environment.
They claim that they’re injecting our food with broth or solutions to make it more tender or flavorful, when in truth, it’s done to enhance their bottom line, to increase profits.
How does this affect you?
In 2009, a study presented to congress by the President of the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) confirmed that 30% of ALL Packaged foods in America have downsized package contents.
It affects you on several levels:
Recipes calling for a can of this or a package that no longer comes out correctly. Have you ever wondered why grandmas recipe just doesn’t take like grandma used to make it? If the original size package was 16 oz and now is only 12oz, you’re missing 1/4 of the package to add to your recipe! To add insult to injury, oftentimes people will open additional cans or packages to add the “missing” ounces to the recipe.
You’re paying the same price (or higher) for less product.
The food doesn’t last as long (because there is less of it) and you spend even more money trying to keep up.
Now that I’ve shown you how and where consumers tend to get ripped off the most, let’s take a look at what you can do about it, as well as how to get the most bang for your buck!
Back to Basics
“Convenience foods” are the biggest and most inconvenient marketing lie today. Items that grandma used to make now come in cute, colorful little boxes that we are paying dearly for. Cake mixes, brownie and cookie mixes, even containers of pre-made cookie dough, frozen microwave meals, and more.
People are often shocked to learn that you can make all of these items at home, ahead of time if you prefer to have them on hand. You can create homemade dry mixes for everyday use including cookies, cakes, sauces, seasoning blends and more.
Where to Begin?
Start small. If you suddenly change all of your shopping and cooking habits, chances are you’ll become frustrated quickly and give up altogether.
Start by making just a few homemade mixes for items that you use regularly, such as the Taco seasoning mix, (which can run as high as $1.25 each), salad dressings and gravy mixes.
Go back and look at your receipt, which convenience items do you spend the most on? What areas can you save the most money? This is a matter of personal preference for your family.
Make Your Own
One of the most often asked questions that I’ve received is “How do you find the time to make your own Mixes from scratch?”
Before I answer this question, I have one for you, how long does it take you to get into your car, drive to your favorite grocery store, and find the item you need, stand in line to checkout, pay for them, drive home, unload the car and put away the groceries?
I’m willing to bet that it takes you at least 30 minutes of your time. In exchange for those 30 minutes, you could’ve put together 15-20 mixes to have in your pantry, plus saved considerably on gas, and eaten healthier with less unnatural food colorings, flavorings, and preservatives.
How to Make Mixes
Start with a recipe that you’ve already tried and enjoy. Do not make up 10 bags of a new recipe that you haven’t used before, because if you or your family hate it and won’t eat it, it’s not a money saver. While nearly every recipe on our site is tried and true, everyone’s tastes are different. While you may read a review on a recipe where some claim, “it’s the best we ever had”, the flavor of that recipe might be the equivalent of roasted skunk to your taste buds.
Once you have tried a recipe and enjoy, gather all of the ingredients necessary to make several mixes of that particular recipe. It’s a good idea to eye the quantities to see if you have enough before you begin. You don’t want several half-finished bags of mix lying around. If you’re making 5 batches of cookie mix and the recipe calls for 2 cups of flour, make sure you have at least 10 cups of flour on hand before you start.
Line up 5 (to 10) individual Ziploc bags, vacuum seal bags (if you intend to store the mixes long-term), or jar, (such as a mason jar).
Measure out the ingredients from your recipe, 1 item at a time into each individual bag. For example, if you’re making cookies and the recipe calls for the following:
2 c. Flour
1/2 c. Sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 c. chocolate chips
You would begin by measuring 2 cups of flour into each bag; THEN 1/2 cup of sugar into each of the bags, then 1 tsp of baking powder into each of the bags, and so on, until all of the dry ingredients for the complete recipe are in the baggie (or jar).
More Money Saving Tips
Another money saving tip when making your own mixes is to use baggies that fit the size mix you are creating.
Various size mini-bags can be found in the craft section of big box stores, such as Walmart and Target, for $1. Each package of bags usually has 100 baggies, so you’re paying approximately .01¢ per baggie – and they can be reused.
2”x3” = hold approximately 1/4 cup of mix
3”x4” = hold approximately 1/2 cup of mix
4”x6”= holds approximately 1¼ cup of mix
I use the various size mini reclosable bags for individual seasoning mixes and the medium size bags for sauce mixes. Also, to get more into the baggie, tap it gently on the counter to settle the ingredients.
Labeling Homemade Mixes
Creating your own homemade mixes is simple and saves tons of money on your monthly grocery budget. Labeling them for use is just as easy. Here are several different methods for adding labels to your homemade mixes.
If you’re making the mixes for your own personal use, the easiest & most time effective way to label your mixes is to simply write the directions directly on the baggie itself, like this:
As you can see from the photo, these are Beef Gravy Mixes. All I’ve written on the baggies are the ingredients necessary to complete the recipe. Add 2 Tbs. butter and 1 c. water. Since I already know “How” to make gravy, it’s not necessary to include the instructions. To save time, this is how I complete most of the mixes for my own use.
If you’re considering giving the item as a gift or sharing it with friends, or, if you’re making mixes that you’ll need directions to prepare, you might want to make labels and attach them.
Easy Method: Make labels that self-adhere simply print them on self-adhesive mailing labels, such as address labels. The size of the label needed is dependent on the size of the baggie or jar you are using for storage.
Here you can see the individual labels on the baggies with complete instructions for preparation; I used 2″x4″ Avery Address labels and made 4 tags per label on each of the mini-bags.
Each seasoning mix bag can be refilled with more mix, rather than being thrown out, again, saving time, money and the environment.
Copycat & Clone Recipes
Eating out is another major budget-buster that plagues our financial well-being. While it’s nice to dine out once in a while, lack of menu-planning, hectic schedules and the inability to plan our time effectively are major reasons for overspending in this area.
When polled, the overwhelming majority of our website guests admitted that they ate out, on average, at least 2 meals per week because “they didn’t feel like cooking dinner”. Generally speaking, this goes back to lack of meal planning, they’ve worked all day, come home tired, have additional things to get accomplished before bed, such as laundry, yard work, etc and don’t feel like playing the pantry game.
You know the one, the game where you stare into your pantry for 20 minutes like you’re expecting a gourmet dinner idea that everyone in your family will be thrilled to eat to magically pop into your head!
If you’re truly eating out because you really love the taste of a certain dish at a particular restaurant, then take heart, we have a dirt cheap solution for you, Copycat Recipes!
The majority of dishes can be made at home for the entire family at a fraction of the expense.
For example, these amazingly delicious hot wings are served by gorgeous gals in tight shirts for a whopping $7.99 per 10 piece serving.
This copycat recipe tastes exactly like its brand name counterpart and costs only $2.12 per 10 piece serving.
Copycat and clone recipes aren’t limited to your favorite restaurant dishes, they can also replace many expensive grocery items such as salad dressings (our families favorite is $4.28 per bottle! I can clone the same taste of Hidden Valley ranch dressing for under .65¢)
No grocery savings article would be complete without including coupons. Over the years I’ve experienced a love/hate relationship with coupon use. Our family has lived in 3 different states in the past fifteen years.
In the Northeast, coupons were available, but I found them to be too time-consuming with toddlers at home. In the Midwest, we lived more than 2 hours from a decent grocery store, so using coupons was virtually impossible.
In the Southeast, coupons have been a bit easier to get, but the coupon policies of the stores and the amount of time it takes to get through the checkout line often outweigh the benefits.
With all of that in mind, let me be clear, Yes, you CAN get amazing deals by using coupons. They are wonderful for things like beauty and personal care items, shampoos, conditioners, soaps, lotions, cosmetics, razors, and dental care products, etc. However, you do NOT have to use coupons in order to get control of your grocery budget.
Traditionally speaking, sales on various goods run in predictable cycles. Learning what those cycles are and when to expect them will save on your household budget as well as your grocery budget. Coupons generally run on a 12-week sales cycle, which means that if you buy this weeks Sunday paper, you might have to wait up to 3 months to get the best deal using those coupons.
For example: In early September you’ll find great coupons on things like baking supplies, canned soups, stuffing, thanksgiving items (cranberry sauce, turkey, gravy, etc). If you hold onto those coupons until mid-November, you can pair them with the various deals and sales, creating a double whammy effect, even getting free groceries at times.
Sales Cycles by Month
For a complete breakdown of sales cycles by month include the following factors: traditional Sales/deals, occasions, national monthly promotions, as well as seasonal produce visit our sister site, grocerybudget101.com.
Unlike nearly two decades ago when we released our first eBook there are now a very large number of coupon resources, here are the most common currently available as of 2020:
- Blinkies– automatically dispensed coupons from a machine (or box) that is attached to a shelf in grocery store isles. These machines spit out coupons as you “walk” by.
- Booklets/Pamphlets– coupons found within various booklets or pamphlets in the entranceways of stores and supermarkets. Often these are booklets contain recipes using brand name products
- Catalinas– you may see these referred to as “cats” on various online coupon sites, simply put, these are coupons are automatically printed out as you check out of a grocery store. They are good for your next visit, or OYNO (on your next order).
- Inserts– coupons that are found in newspapers, most often Sunday papers. Inserts are offered by SmartSource (SS), Red Plum/Vlassis (RP), and P&G Brandsaver (P&G). Inserts are regional and coupon values vary greatly.
- Magazine– coupons found within the pages of various magazines. All You Magazine frequently has multiple coupons within its pages
- FIPs or “Found Inside Package” – coupons that are located inside a product package.
- Peelies– coupons that are attached to products via a sticker.
- Printables- coupons that are printed from your home (or office) computer that can be redeemed in-store. Currently, there are 5 major companies that offer legitimate printable/mobile coupons:
- Coupon Network
- Snail Mail– coupons that are mailed directly to the consumer from the manufacturer. Stores with loyalty cards frequently send out additional coupons and consumers who take the time to offer feedback via telephone or email often receive coupons this way as well.
- Tearpads– Coupons that are often found at endcap displays or store shelves on a tear pad beside a product
- Wine tags/Hangtags– Coupons that are hung directly on the product, generally on wine bottles, meats or cheeses.
If you’re seeking coupon deals on the web, you’ll often encounter deals that appear like this:
A-1 Steak Sauce $2.56 (wally)
Use $2/1 Q from 8/19 SS (exp. 9/19)
= $0.56 after Q
Which means, the price of the Steak Sauce is normally $2.56 at Walmart, use a $2.00 off the purchase of 1 item coupon that appeared in the Smart Source insert of the August 16th edition Sunday paper. The final price after the coupon is deducted is .56¢ The deal must be completed prior to September 19th, as that is the expiration date of the coupon.
Whew, that’s a lot of information in very few words! It’s understandable that many new coupon users get easily discouraged and frustrated.
The key to getting great deals with coupons is to learn coupon policies of the stores you frequent.
· Does your store double or triple coupons?
· What are the limits? Some stores limit coupons to 10 per transaction
· Does the store require the use of a Savings Club Card?
Savings Club Cards
Most chain grocery stores now offer savings club cards. These are cards that allow the consumer an additional amount of during the checkout process, or a special price for being a “member” of the club.
In order to get these cards, one only needs to visit the customer service desk of his/her local grocery store and ask for an “application”. Fill out the form and they’ll hand you a club card for their store.
Each time you pass through the check out line, your card will be scanned and you’ll often receive “member price” or member discounts. Sometimes store prices are considerably higher if you neglect to present a card!
Here’s an example from an ad in our local paper. The boneless pork loin is $1.49 WITH the club card; however, in the yellow price point (in fine print), you can see that the price is $2.49 per pound if you aren’t a club member.
Also, many clubs offer various “rewards” programs if you purchase a certain number of items or certain products within a specified time frame.
You already know that each fresh fruit or vegetable has a particular season when it becomes most plentiful and least expensive; what you might not have realized is that nearly all groceries have a “season” as well.
Stockpiling is the art of stocking up on a particular item when it can be purchased at its lowest price until the next anticipated sales cycle for that particular item.
For example, in November, goods such as canned vegetables and soups go on sale, at times for less than half of their normal price. If you use 3 cans of soup per week and you know, by following the sales cycle charts, that soup is only on sale every 3 months, you would purchase 36 cans of soup, (3 cans per week x 12 weeks), to hold you over until the next predicted sale for that item.
Some items may only go on sale once or twice per year, but at such substantial savings from the regular price that it’s worth it to buy a large quantity and store it until needed.
Items that we regularly stockpile are Laundry detergent, deodorant, toilet paper, soap, razors, cereal, baking supplies, and coffee.
Tips for Successful Stockpiling
- If you enjoy couponing, pair coupons with sales to add to your stockpile.
- Be sure to be aware of your storage capabilities before shopping. Don’t come home with a trunkload of an item and not have any place to put it, unless you want to become a star on a hoarding show!
- Don’t buy items you won’t use just because theyre cheap. Its nice to save money, but if its not a product that youre going to use, you’re wasting money, your time and valuable storage space in your home.
- Build your stockpile gradually and only when items are at their lowest price
Being loyal to a particular brand can cost you hundreds of dollars each year. Did you know that Name brands cost 20-50% less than their name-brand counterpart? Several years ago we ran a “scientific” budget experiment in our home. Unbeknown to my unsuspecting family, I purchased several store-brand items and literally swapped them with their brand name counterpart.
I saved the packaging of the brand name when they were empty and then refilled them. I wanted to see for myself whether my kids had turned into food snobs based on marketing ploys or whether the brands truly tasted different or of lesser quality.
Brand Loyalty Test Results:
Kraft Macaroni & Cheese vs. Great Value Mac-n-Cheese: Full disclosure, we did NOT try this one on our own family as I don’t purchase boxed Mac-n-cheese, my kids have no idea what it tastes like. Instead, we enlisted the help of a friend with 3 kids ages 5, 8 and 11. She reported back, quite happy that her kids not only didn’t mind the switch but asked if she added extra cheese because it tasted better this time.
Rice Krispies vs. Wal-Mart Store Brand– the kids didn’t seem to notice the switch, however, dear husband-who is a HUGE fan of rice krispie treats, made them and then couldn’t stop commenting about something “just not being right, the texture was off”, etc. Honestly, I couldn’t believe he could tell the difference.
Ritz Crackers vs. Great Value Crackers– Kids were unable to taste the difference at all, I thought they tasted like they had a bit less salt than the Ritz, but all in all, we were happy to make the switch.
Oreos vs. Twist-o’s (Dollar Store Item) – The kids don’t eat too many store-prepared foods, but we do buy Oreos on occasion during the summer months. As long as they had a glass of milk to go with the cookies, they didn’t seem to care either way.
All-Purpose Flour vs. Great Value Flour which is nearly $1 less per 5lb bag!- no noticeable difference in taste or quality.
McCormick Real Vanilla Extract v.s Aldi’s Store brand Vanilla– This one was a miserable failure for me, I ended up using nearly 3 1/2 teaspoons of vanilla to match the flavor of a single teaspoon of McCormicks.
Hershey’s Chocolate syrup vs. Homemade Copycat Hershey’s Syrup: No one knew that I made the syrup myself, but my husband was thrilled that Hershey finally “Changed their recipe so it’s easier to stir”. The syrup was a touch thinner than the original, but the flavor was exactly the same.
Over the course of our unofficial home study we tried more than 40 items and what we’ve discovered is that some store brands actually taste better than their name brand counterparts. I won’t skimp on baking supplies like extracts and certain types of seasonings/spices.
I do, however, purchase store brand items such as chips, pretzels, cereals, and crackers. If you look at the back of the packaging of MOST store brand items you’ll notice that they offer a 100% satisfaction money-back guarantee. It’s worth it to switch out a couple of items each week and taste test them with your family. In the event that you aren’t happy with the switch, you can always get your money back.
We would love to hear your experiences with swapping out foods with your family as well!
More Grocery Budget Tips
In addition to the topics we’ve already covered, here are a few extra tips that will help you curb your spending and save money:
- Make a Grocery List & USE it
- To Avoid shopping at multiple stores to get the best deals, bring sales flyers with you to price match – get the best prices and save on gas
- Do NOT Grocery Shop while you are Hungry- you will have a tendency to impulse shop for items that are costly in the wallet and generally less healthy
- Compare ounce and unit prices- in the past, it was cheaper to purchase items in bulk, the discounts were immense. Retailers have gotten a bit savvier and now it’s often considerably cheaper to purchase smaller packages. Check the prices closely to make sure you are getting the best price per ounce.
- Leave the kids at home or with a friend or neighbor, studies have proven that bringing the children shopping increases the likelihood of impulse spending
- Learn how to cook less expensive cuts of meat, a crockpot is a wonderful walk-away appliance that will turn even the toughest cuts of meat into tender morsels that will melt in your mouth
- Use cash when you shop, preferably larger bills. When you have to cash a big bill, you think twice about how much money you are spending
- Avoid purchasing convenience food items- make your own!
- Substitute- Substitute- Substitute!!! If you run out of something, dont make a special trip to the store to buy more. Use a substitute in its place. Check out the substitution forum for a wide range of items that can be easily replaced
- Buy fruits and vegetables in season at your local Farmers Market, farm stands and natural food stores- often these are half the price of chain supermarkets
Make Your Own Cookbook
It’s wonderful to have a computer, iPad or Kindle at your fingertips, but when you’re in the kitchen preparing a recipe, it’s nice to have a hard copy that you can jot notes on for future reference, particularly if the kids are helping!
Here’s a dirt-cheap method for creating a long-lasting cookbook that is washable and versatile.
Fill your binder with empty sheet protectors. Add recipes by slipping them into the sleeves. Now, when you’re cooking you don’t have to worry about spilling anything on your cookbook, the splatters and spills will wipe right off.
If you want to get fancy, add tabs and divide your cookbook into sections, appetizers, bread, desserts, main dishes, dirt cheap dishes, beverages, snacks, seasonings, etc.
As you can see, ours isn’t very fancy. I’ve added homemade recipe cards to the pages, which enables me to add my own notes to each recipe as needed.
In order to help you get your cookbook started, here are a few of our favorite recipes! Happy Cooking!
We hope you’ve enjoyed our guide! Stayed tuned to our Free Weekly Newsletter to see future meal plans for more drastic savings on your grocery bill.
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