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Make a Grocery Plan that Works for Your Family

in Family, Joan's Posts, Money Basics

Note: This is a post from Joan Otto, Man Vs. Debt community manager. Read more about Joan.

I’m writing this post at 11:30 p.m. on Sunday night, and Chris and I have just gotten back from a 2.5-hour trip to the grocery store. Everything’s put away, and we’re off the hook – for another two weeks, when we’ll do it all again.

Grocery shopping is a production for us. It’s a well-oiled production, though, and it’s evolved over the past 3 or 4 years into a system that keeps us fed, keeps us on budget, and takes as little of our time as we can reasonably expect.

We have two refrigerators, four basically-adult people in our house, five cats, a dog and a hamster. We want to shop as infrequently as possible. We have some food allergies. We rarely eat out at this point, so our “grocery” spending is easily 90% of our total food cost. There are certain brands we prefer to support, and certain products for which store brands are great.

The point of our shopping isn’t “just be cheap.” It’s a combination of all these factors, and today, I want to show you how it works. I’m not promising this is a great system for everyone – or anyone but us, actually. But I hope it’s “food” for thought!

Menu planning

About three or four years ago, we were those people who stared vacantly in the pantry each evening going, “What are we going to have for dinner?”

If we “felt like” chicken, we’d have to hurry up and thaw it, and then we’d “feel like” a side dish of rice, which we didn’t have, so we’d run to the store real quick, and come out $50 later with rice and 8 other things we needed. And while we never spent long at the store, it seemed like we were ALWAYS at the store.

That’s when we decided to start menu-planning. We set out two weeks’ worth of dinners before our every-other-week shopping trip. Sometimes we’ll switch things, but we know what we need, and we’re never stuck with “I have side dishes but no main dishes.”

Why it works and how it helps

  • This is the single biggest reason we have been able to cut down on grocery-trip frequency. With enough food for two weeks’ worth of dinners and the matching amount of breakfast and lunch staples, there’s no more needing to run out for this or that.
  • We like that we still have flexibility. If Wednesday gets hectic, maybe we eat leftovers that night and make the chicken and dumplings another day.
  • Speaking of leftovers, menu planning helps us waste as little food as possible. We know what we have on hand, and can space things out accordingly with “fend for yourself” or “leftovers” days.
  • Everyone gets a say, and everyone’s schedule can be accommodated. We know what we’re having, and if one of us REALLY doesn’t like something, we’ll plan it for a night that person’s not home (or plan for an alternative!) And, Chris doesn’t end up only getting his favorite foods as leftovers, since he is home for dinner less often than the rest of us. Win/win!

The list

Ah, the grocery list. This gets additions between trips, but we sit down and finalize it during our menu-planning time.

Having a list was mandatory if we were going to start shopping less frequently – it was easy to remember fabric softener if you used the last of it and were at the store the next day; sadly, less so two weeks later!

Why it works and how it helps

  • Our list keeps us from making too many impulse purchases. We definitely have off-list items, but they’re the exception, and Chris keeps us on track with, “Um, excuse me, are those off-list cranberries?” It’s fun, and it’s a great reminder!
  • We are notorious forgetters. We need a list to make sure we don’t plan two meals of chicken and come home without chicken. Yes, this would happen.
  • Compiling the list is a reminder to take inventory. We know how many of certain things we need for each two-week period. So while we’re writing the list, we’re also doing things like counting rolls of toilet paper and paper towels, checking the stash of tissues, taking a count of allergy medication and so on.
  • Normally, all four of us (Mom, Sarah, Chris and I) go to the store, but sometimes, like last night, it’s just Chris and me. The list helps us make sure everyone’s wants and needs are reflected even if they’re not there to chime in!

Coupons and sale flyers

Believe it or not, I’m not an extreme couponer or sales junkie. We use coupons and check out our grocery store’s sale flyer (and the flyers for the three other grocery stores nearby), but our system works because we don’t have to spend a lot of time and effort on it.

Why it works and how it helps

  • We shop almost entirely at one store. Do we pay more for a few things than if we shopped around? Absolutely. But we also earn points that we can use for discounts on gas (I just saved 70 cents a gallon, or more than $10 on a fill-up), and we get special coupons in the mail based on our rewards-card usage. We’ve learned the sale cycle to some extent, and we stock up when it’s appropriate, but we don’t drive all over to get paper towels for $1 less for a 12-pack.
  • We specifically seek out coupons for brands we’d buy anyway. I might clip 2 or 3 coupons from our Sunday paper each week, but I often have others. A great tip for getting the most out of your coupon usage? Write to companies whose products you buy regularly. Tell them what you like about their product, and ask if you can be put on their mailing list for any recipes, coupons or updates. MANY will immediately send you high-value coupons! I’ll take that over 50 cents off a product I don’t really love!
  • We use our store’s own coupons. There’s a kiosk right inside the door where you can print coupons for things like 50 cents off any store-brand product or $1 off $6 in frozen foods. These are a huge help!
  • We don’t use a coupon just because we have it. This week, I really didn’t need to buy 18 rolls of toilet paper to save $1. We’re already stocked up, and we wanted to put the extra money in the grocery budget toward our church’s food pantry.

Shopping day

We’ve got this part DOWN. Chris pushes the cart and mans the list. Sometimes (like above) he eyes up a peanut-butter pie and gets shot down. If my mom comes, she’s got the coupons. If Sarah comes, she’s in charge of used coupons and getting anything that requires bending to a bottom shelf. And I handle coupons if Chris and I go on our own, and also add up our totals on my calculator as we go. Well-oiled machine, like I said!

Why it works and how it helps

  • Everyone’s got a job to do. I know it sounds corny, but that helps make a 2.5-hour grocery trip bearable, and we actually have a ton of fun. If we’re going to do it anyway, we might as well make a party out of it, right?
  • We know when to go and when not to. Day before Super Bowl? NOPE. 9 p.m. at our 24-hour store? YUP. 2 a.m., when you have to self-check your groceries no matter what? DISASTROUSLY NO, as we have sadly learned the hard way.
  • We’re all on board with how much things cost and how we’re doing against our budget. There’s even a system for this – we round everything to the nearest quarter, whoever puts it in the cart gives me the amount, and that’s what I add up. It gets us quite close and makes sure we’re not veering into dangerous budgetary territory somewhere around ice cream. (Yeah, there’s a reason we go the direction we do; produce first, frozen pie last!)
  • We bring our own grocery bags and have adopted a rather silly rule of one cart, no matter what. The joke is that if we need more than one cart, Chris won’t carry it into the house, which he does with the help of our dog each trip. I highly doubt that’s true, but I sure don’t want to find out! ;-)
  • We’ve even got a system for putting things away, which Mom and I (with Sarah’s help) tackle while Chris carries. The only depressing part about the whole process is how quickly stuff vanishes into fridges, freezers and cupboards. $300-some put away that fast? Ick!

So what about you? How do you grocery-shop, meal-plan or otherwise deal with getting food into your house?

Why does it work well for you – or what challenges do you have?

Let’s talk about it in the comments!

{ 83 comments… read them below or add one }

BC February 25, 2013 at 10:20 AM

Great tips! My family has started creating weekly menus and shopping lists based on that menu. One thing we’ve found that really helps is Pepperplate (http://www.pepperplate.com). It lets you add you recipes and plan menus around those recipes. It also creates a shopping list that has everything grouped together (all veggies & produce together, canned goods together, etc) so it’s much easier to plan your shopping trip & won’t be running all over the store. The only drawback I have with it right now is that you can’t share recipes, menus & such between users so my wife & I have to share the same login. I asked the developers about this functionality & they said that there are changes coming so having a more social aspect of the program. As a bonus, it’s FREE! Like, totally free.

No, I don’t work for Pepperplate or have anything to do with them other than I truly love the application. It’s already great but the potential is absolutely phenomenal!

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Joan February 25, 2013 at 11:11 AM

BC, I’ll have to check that out. We definitely do groupings of our list, but we’re doing it by hand – would be neat to try to figure out how to make that more efficient if it can!

Does it do household items/pet care/toiletries, or just food? I would say a full third of our list is not people food. :)

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BC February 25, 2013 at 11:16 AM

Unfortunately, it doesn’t. For now, it’s only recipes.

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Rain February 25, 2013 at 10:48 AM

I’ve done this for years to save money and time. It usually takes me 2.5-3 hours, every two weeks. Most of my “bulk” shopping is done at Sams Club, then I head across the street to Meijer’s to purchase the odds and ends that are not available at Sams. Also I set an exact budget for those two weeks which includes toiletries. If I run out of a food item during those two weeks, I still wait until my next big trip. This is the key to staying on budget and preserving my time. I haven’t found it necessary to use coupons as I buy the store brand when it’s available, this is also a time saver and is inexpensive.

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Joan February 25, 2013 at 11:12 AM

Rain, that’s awesome!! I too am a “well, it’ll wait” person, unless it’s a dire emergency – like toilet paper :) But food can always wait – there’s always something else to have!

So glad you have a system that is working well!

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Bilgefisher February 25, 2013 at 11:05 AM

This is one category I would rate my family with an F. We make a list, but not a menu. Ive got to figure out a way to bring our grocery bill down.
We have 2 adults, a 1 year old and a 50 lb dog. We spend $1000/mo on food, hygiene, and baby and home products. It makes me cringe. That does not include eating out once per week on Friday. (which we usually spend less than $25)

What I would like to know is how much everyone is spending?

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Joan February 25, 2013 at 11:20 AM

OK, I can’t say I had a good system when I had a 1-year-old either :)

I would say our spending is probably close to yours, maybe a little lower. Let me work it out in my head: We’re between $300 and $340 every 2 weeks, including all toiletries/pet items/home products, which when you do it over the year, works out to be just under $750 a month. I’d say any dining-out expenses we have would be less than $50 more a month, maybe $75 at worst. There are probably some outside household expenses – for instance, one of our cats gets his food at our vet’s office, and that’s not in that total, and in the summer, we add in a farmers’ market trip on the off-week and bump the budget by about $20… so I’d say there are months where we’re in the $850 to $900 range for our large assortment of living creatures.

That said, I also have to be radically clear that one great thing about central Pennsylvania is the food/grocery prices. We are paying nearly half of what some of my friends in some major East Coast metropolitan areas pay on an item-by-item basis!

I don’t know if that helps at all, but there it is!

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Bilgefisher February 25, 2013 at 2:32 PM

Thanks for the info. I’m in Denver. I’m not sure how we compare to the nation in prices for food.

That makes me feel a bit better, but we still need to trim down. I think the kid is around $300 a month or so. Thankfully he is starting to eat more and more of our food. That helps.

Jason

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CP February 25, 2013 at 3:14 PM

We are around $100/week for 2 adults, 1 preschooler. I cook primarily from scratch, we eat vegetarian, and buy basics (beans, pasta) in bulk when we have a good sale. We used to spend a lot more than that just on the two adults, but that went way down when I started cooking mostly from scratch. You’ve just got to find what works for you. I prefer to shop more often (once very other week would never work for us!), as mostly we’re buying produce or milk. Because we prefer to shop more frequently we can also easily shop at different stores, and I generally know which place has the best prices on which item. I do plan out menus, but keep flexible, in case there’s a great deal on something (not so important with the non-perishables as with produce) The regular supermarket, Aldi, and Trader Joe’s all have a role, as do ethnic markets and produce stores or farmer’s markets. If that figure of yours includes diapers I’m not surprised it’s so high; I wish I’d been more proactive on finding cheap diaper sources (if going with disposable), as I think smart couponing/stacking could really have saved us money when we were still in the diaper buying days. I’m taking to growing more of my herbs (and really plan on going wild this summer!) as fresh herbs are so expensive in stores, yet if grown at home are such an easy, cheap way to make excellent food! As far as the home goods, I make my own, and we just buy cheap detergent or are diligent about coupons.

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Bilgefisher February 25, 2013 at 4:20 PM

Thanks CP. Good stuff. Diapers certainly cost a bit. My wife really looks for the deals on those. I am really bad about eating veggies, but my wife loves them and I love to garden, so that will help this summer. I like the planned menu.

Jason

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Mindy February 25, 2013 at 11:49 PM

Hello Bilgefisher, our plan is something along the lines of Joan’s plan. I keep it simple and just sit down at the kitchen table and start with the morning and move through the day in my mind. The first thing at our house is coffee…need or not need? Whatever your particulars are, you can pretty much come up with a food plan for a week or two. I also check cabinets and fridge for things that need used up. Two bottles of BBQ sauce to be eaten. Okay then, plan BBQ chicken for an evening. Full box of Saltines? How about soup? At the end of your “day” check for pet supplies, baby, paper supplies, cleaning, personal items needed etc. Checking for things to be used up eliminates the fridge full of “compost and condiments.” (and that’s your money sitting in there) I don’t know where I read that, so I can’t give credit:) We also keep a piece of paper on the fridge to jot things down that are needed. I also limited it to just two spots in our house for all the cleaning supplies and any “community” items such as sun lotion, q-tips, etc. Things everyone uses. It eliminates double-buying things because the 600 q-tips are in one bathroom. I made the cleaning/community area after I realized I had three half-bottles and one full bottle of windex in a small home. Some of my money was sitting in blue liquid on three floors! I am pretty sure Baker said…sometimes the simplest thing isn’t the most convenient. Actually, I think it saves me more time, money and frustration to just have windex in a couple spots in the house. It only takes me 60 seconds to go look and does my cellulite a world of good. I hope this helps!

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Kathy February 26, 2013 at 5:44 PM

For our family of 3 adults, 2 small dogs and fish we spend around $700 in Texas. I know other states have higher food prices. When we visit Chicago I am shocked at how high their food prices are.

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essay February 25, 2013 at 11:29 AM

I love the “fend for yourself” days — we’ve done that a lot. Still do.
Love your tips!

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Joan February 25, 2013 at 2:24 PM

Thanks!! :)

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Anne Cloward February 25, 2013 at 11:44 AM

I have also done this for years, made my plan, made sure I had the makings for the meals on my list, etc. I have found two rules to live by: cut out as many “extra” trips to the store as I can, and work from a master list. I made one up years ago, and modified it as the kids and critters came and went. I print it out on the computer, put it on the fridge, and have people circle things that we need (like toothpaste, toilet paper, and tissues). We have three adults and spend about $100 a week.
My other rule is to buy as little processed food as possible. I have a pressure cooker and a crockpot and cook from scratch (with the exception of brownie and cake mixes) for most of our meals, a skill I learned from my mother. I know how to cook beans, rice, couscous and other ingredients, which doesn’t take that much effort, but saves me big bucks. Eating vegetarian half the time helps too. The price of meat only goes up.

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Joan February 25, 2013 at 2:25 PM

Anne, those are great tips! We definitely watch our meat costs fastidiously – you can really rack it up!

When we’re routinely going to the market in the spring and summer, we tend to get our meat there too. Better quality, and also cheaper!

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Mel Kolstad February 25, 2013 at 11:45 AM

GREAT post! I do many of the things you do, Joan, but our situation is a little different.

Firstly, it’s just my husband and me. That means that most of the meals I prepare are going to have leftovers. I work from home so I NEVER have to pay for lunch – and I have those delish leftovers at my disposal! We also use coupons for things we already purchase, and try to double up as much as we can (check our paper’s grocery store ads against what coupons are available in the Valassis or Red Plum inserts).

I also make a bi-monthly trip to a salvage grocery store about 28 miles away. I get things like jars of roasted red peppers (which I use often in my cooking) for a DOLLAR a jar. I get very expensive Bonne Maman jam (retail: $4.50) for $1.50. I get expensive jars of gourmet Indian sauces for a BUCK. I get Celestial Seasonings tea for $1.50 a box. I get canned tuna and chicken for 67 cents each (and ALL of these items are still well within expiry date, in case you were wondering). I figure that every time I go I save about $200 (and only spend $40). If you have a salvage grocery store within a 30 mile radius, I highly suggest checking it out!

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Joan February 25, 2013 at 2:34 PM

Mel, that’s an excellent point! We are lucky enough to have several – I haven’t gone to any recently but I need to make it a point to check them out more!

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Martha February 25, 2013 at 5:54 PM

I’ve never heard of a salvage grocery store – but I must check that out! I don’t buy much in the way of processed foods (and am trying to make more and more of my food from scratch now), but I do keep canned veggies & condiments in the house.

My father owned a small grocery store when I was growing up, so our pantry was always stocked with all the bent cans and salvage stuff. We always ate cheese ends and salami ends from the deli counter. on sandwiches made from day-old bread. Anything that needed to be “salvaged” generally ended up in our kitchen. Sometimes we’d do “mystery food” night, and have to make dishes using some of the unlabelled cans that my dad brought home – Sort of like Chopped!

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Liz February 25, 2013 at 11:58 AM

Joan, I like your system! My goal for the summer (once I’m moved to a new place) is to work out a meal plan/grocery list system. I’d definitely rather spend $150-200/2 weeks on groceries for two people (a high-ball estimate methinks) than $100, but with another $250 of eating out on top of it!

(And yes, I’m totally running my monthly grocery vs. total food numbers right now. :D)

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Joan February 25, 2013 at 2:37 PM

Tee hee, I couldn’t possibly have guessed ;-)

I am with you all the way, too, that it’s a great value to decrease some restaurant expenses and up the grocery bill. I can’t say we won’t go back to eating out more often in the future, but for now, it’s been a huge savings!

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Jason Burk February 25, 2013 at 12:04 PM

I tried to get my wife to buy into the E-Mealz program a while back, but it never got any traction. I love the idea of meal planning where I don’t have to do much other than hit the store and stick to the schedule. But it isn’t happening effectively yet.

That being said, hopefully folks will post their monthly grocery budget in some apples to apples fashion — I’ve been curious a LONG time what is a reasonable amount to spend at the grocery on a monthly basis. I “budget” about $600 a month for a family of 4, two adults, one 6 yr. old and one 3 yr. old. That doesn’t include baby necessities or household stuff necessarily, the food budget is really “food:groceries” in Quicken (we even have a separate category for “food:adult beverages”) and the household stuff is separated into “baby, pet and other.” I would really like to get to spending $400 a month if possible, but I’ve never been able to figure that one out easily (and I prefer to shop hungry, which doesn’t help ; )

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Joan February 25, 2013 at 2:39 PM

AHHH! Shopping hungry is scary. (But good in a way, because I think you look more carefully instead of just grabbing the same stuff.) I don’t know for sure what percentage of our total is food vs. “household” or “pets,” because that doesn’t really change our budgeting – just the total dollar amount at the store does, and we kind of work across all the categories to be sure we hit it.

But I cracked up at your categories. In good news, our food:adult beverages spending remains at zero (neither Chris or I drink), but it is more than made up for in what would fall into the food:unhealthy crap category!! ;-)

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barefoot Jacq February 25, 2013 at 12:05 PM

Funny, I posted on my blog today about my process for grocery shopping too, must be on everyone’s brains! My favorite tip is this:

Snap a picture of your list. Always forgetting your list? Keep a whiteboard or blackboard in the kitchen and jot down items as you think of them. Before shopping, take a picture of your list using your smartphone and just remember to take your phone with you.

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Joan February 25, 2013 at 2:39 PM

Jacq, that’s a good idea. We have gone back for things before – bags, coupons, list, etc.

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E. February 25, 2013 at 12:30 PM

The only thing missing from this post is reminding people that sales aren’t random. You can predict when certain things will go on sale around holidays, but if you keep track you can also predict when certain products go on sale any time of the year. Also, don’t forget that stores are stocked with the thought of the neighborhoods ethnic make up in mind. So, the price of something at your local store may be significantly less at a store in a neighborhood with a different ethnic make up.

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Joan February 25, 2013 at 2:41 PM

We absolutely take advantage of the sale rotation, which is part of why I said we shop just at one main store.

You’re definitely right about prices varying per neighborhood, too, though here in Central PA, our grocery stores are all in particular suburban areas that tend to cater to a very un-diverse population. Our markets, though, have a GREAT variety of world foods that we like to take advantage of!

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Tess Wittler February 25, 2013 at 12:32 PM

Hi Joan! This blog article is great! At the end of the year, I was sick at how much money we were spending a month on groceries (just 2 of us). I made a resolution to go the grocery store once per pay (1st and 15th) and see how that works for us. So far, in just two months, we’ve saved about $200 each month!

The only “hole” I see is in produce and deli meat. I can’t seem to keep salad and fruits fresh the entire 2-ish weeks. So I do make a run for those items ONLY – weekly – but even with those runs back into the grocery store – I am sticking to my list and saving a ton of dough!

If you have any suggestions for keeping produce fresh, I am all ears! Certainly in the summer when we have our garden, this is easier.

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Joan February 25, 2013 at 2:46 PM

Tess, we freeze a lot of things, which helps. (Berries, peppers/onions cut up, etc.)

We also eat heavier in produce and deli in Week 1 than in Week 2 – so sandwiches for lunch the first week, frozen pierogies the second, etc.

And a lot of our fruits and veggies keep quite well, like apples, oranges, potatoes (store them in the dark), etc.

Bananas are about the only thing we specifically have trouble keeping fresh, but again, we eat them when they’re fresh, then take a week off and eat oranges and grapefruits, then get them, etc. We’ve had carrots in our crisper drawer for a month with no problems, etc. We don’t eat a lot of salads, but we do eat a lot of raw veggies sliced, and again, a lot of that comes out of the freezer!

It’s a good point, though – you have to really plan in order for that to work!

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Dani Sheffield February 25, 2013 at 12:42 PM

Hi Joan,
I definitely am using a food planner app and a grocery list app to do my shopping 2 weeks at a time. There are 2 adults and a 13 year old daughter who is very picky. I spend approximate 160.0 to 170.00 every two weeks on food only and another 40.00 for the entire month on toiletries. If times get really tough I can take it down to 150.00 as I have done it before but I have to be very intentional in order to make that happen. I must say that I have to remind my family that this food is meant to last for two weeks which allows them to gauge themselves, especially on the snacks. Thanks for sharing your process. Keep up the good work.

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Joan February 25, 2013 at 2:47 PM

Dani, that’s a good point, too! We don’t limit any foods in our house, but we also all know that if it’s gone, it’s pretty much “gone,” which means if you want to eat 87 cookies in 2 nights, well, it’s gonna be a while until cookies appear again. That may or may not refer more to certain adults than to Sarah. :)

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Jody February 25, 2013 at 12:49 PM

There are a few investments we’ve made that really save us money. First, a 32 pack of microfiber shop towels at Costco for $16, and some sets of cloth napkins. I never buy paper napkins or paper towels. Saves on space and on the bill. We have enough napkins for company. At first, our family would say, you don’t want to use those, but now, they are over it! We entertain a lot, so it was worth it for us to buy super cheap white dishes from IKEA. We never need paper products other than toilet paper. (We cloth diaper too). Again, you have to change your mentality to make it work and actually use the reusable.
These led to an unexpected savings of getting a much smaller garbage container. Here, we get charged based on the container size. Even still, we only have a full can every other week, if that. I could down size it again.
Love menu planning! Great job on that.
When you start menu planning, its a good idea to inventory your pantry and freezer. I was amazed how many weeks worth of meals I was able to put together with just some additional veggies, from what we already had.

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Joan February 25, 2013 at 2:51 PM

We use cloth napkins exclusively! Aren’t they great?!

We’ve really cut down on our paper-towel usage too, and we use regular towels for our “stuff,” but not for the pets. That’s one part where I was willing to sacrifice a little in cost and environmental factor to save my own “eww” factor :)

And you’re so right about the garbage too – we don’t pay per container size, but we are down to about two bags in one can every week, and again, a good part of that is pet-related and not human-related, which is great! (Our recycling, though, is IMMENSE. I wish they came more often!)

Good for you for having such an awesome system in place!

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Jody February 26, 2013 at 12:50 AM

Here, here on the recycling. We actually save recycling for the next pick up day in our garage and have the biggest can available! Recyclables are sold as commodities, so I really don’t get why they don’t pick up more often or give free extra containers!

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Tessa February 25, 2013 at 12:54 PM

I love the idea, and have been trying to move towards a food plan, nearly always fail. But haven’t given up yet!!! and would love to get to only shopping once every two weeks.

small question though, what do you with fresh produce like vegetables and fruits?

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Joan February 25, 2013 at 2:53 PM

Tessa, I shared a little about that in my reply to Tess above, but basically, we eat heavier in fresh stuff on the week we shop, and heavier in frozen (veggies, fruits we’ve frozen on our own, etc.) the second week!

Most of our produce does keep the whole time, though, like apples/oranges/potatoes/carrots/radishes/onions. Some of those we can go a month between buying, if they’re stored well!

Bananas were my only exception to that, and we just eat them when we get them, then take a break from them and eat other fruits until we go back!

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Tessa February 25, 2013 at 4:43 PM

totally missed your previous reply about the veg, but it does make me think that I need to approach menu planning a bit different then what I have been doing :)

I see pepperplate mentioned here a bit, I used it for a while, but found it too limiting for budgetting purposed. and have now moved over to springpad, where I am building up my recipes, but also always me to to do so much more (not related to food as well).
http://springpad.com

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Catherine February 25, 2013 at 1:36 PM

Wow!! You’ve really hit upon one of my biggest weaknesses! Being single and living in Philadelphia, it is sooooo easy for me to just “pick things up” on the way home. Now, I’m not talking about groceries – I’m talking about take-out. I am actually a pretty healthy eater, so I tend to stay along the lines of salads and healthier foods, but the bills add up. Especially, if I get take out at a restaurant and hang out for a beer or two while I’m waiting. Or, what the hell, let’s just eat out!

It is easier (though way more expensive) for me to eat out than it is to go the supermarket. I have several restaurants within a couple blocks of my house IN EVERY DIRECTION, yet I need to drive to the supermarket. Though, there are some small corner markets near by, they are much pricier than the grocery store.

Anyway, I really think that meal planning could help. Because when I do go to the grocery store, I tend to overbuy (for all of the meals that I plan in my head, but never make) and lots of stuff goes bad and ends up in the trash.

Tons of thanks to BC for the Pepperplate link!! I am definitely going to try it :)

Wanna know the funniest thing?? I have tons of cookbooks THAT I NEVER USE!! They just need to go … lol

Catherine ~

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Joan February 25, 2013 at 3:04 PM

I have that cookbook problem too!!! We’ll tackle that together :)

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Lilypad February 25, 2013 at 11:44 PM

I had a cookbook addiction too but we moved several times and I got tired of lugging them around. So I forced myself to winnow them down (I made copies of pages with recipes I couldn’t do without) and sold or gave away 90% of them. Nowadays, I check cookbooks out from the library and copy down anything that sounds good. So many recipes are available online, too, that I can find and print out anything I need on the spur of the moment.

As for how much we spent, keep in mind that we live in a VERY expensive part of the country (Seattle) and we eat 85-90% organic because that helps my son, who has 3 neurological disorders. Also, I’m a vegetarian, my son eats only a few kinds of meat, and my husband eats veg at home outside of the occasional steak of salmon filet that he barbecues for himself. We spend $725 per month on groceries, and that’s with me cooking/baking 90% from scratch….sure wish we lived in a cheaper part of the world. We shop mostly at a local co-op so the money stays in the community and then buy what I can at the farmers’ market in season.

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barefoot Jacq February 25, 2013 at 2:20 PM

I forgot to mention for produce, we order from a local CSA. To find one in the US check out this site – http://www.localharvest.org/csa/

This way we get, fresh, local, organic produce delivered to our door, and the produce lasts MUCH MUCH longer than the stuff in stores since it didn’t travel as far to get to your plate – throwing spoiled food away PAINS me!

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Joan February 25, 2013 at 3:01 PM

CSAs are AWESOME!!

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Rebecca February 25, 2013 at 2:58 PM

We basically shop once a week and spend about $150 or so on groceries mainly on fresh produce, milk, cat food and TP when needed. We do buy in bulk what we can so there really is not much shortage on rice and beans along with a few other grains like Quinoa. This just helps us to eat healthier and hopefully save money in the long term via medical bills.

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Joan February 25, 2013 at 3:06 PM

That’s a great plan, Rebecca! We definitely are believers in the spend-to-save mindset when it comes to food. I won’t say we live it out 100% yet, mostly for immediate budgetary reasons, but we’ve come a long way and as more money is freed up, that’s one thing we’re quite willing to drop it toward!

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Ginny February 25, 2013 at 5:26 PM

When we started paying attention to where our money goes I could not believe how much we spent in food. Are you ready? For our family of three adults and one dog we were spending $2000 a month! You read that right – $500 a week for three people! We were going out to eat a lot, while also throwing away a lot of food that we bought but didn’t eat because we were going out to eat A LOT. We have gotten it down to $350 (you have no idea how much I wanted to cheat and say $300) a week. I don’t pay attention to sale rotations, I don’t use coupons and I don’t shop in bulk. I buy as much organic as I can, and we have a serious wine habit. I am definitely more aware of where our food dollars are going but change is slow. We do, however, only use cash for food, even when we go out to eat.

True confessions are good for the soul, right? LOL

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Joan February 25, 2013 at 6:31 PM

Hey, you have made BIG changes, first of all, which is huge. And you have to do what works for you!!

I think in the future, we may end up with just as high of a grocery budget for Chris and I alone, for instance. Right now, there are things we compromise on that we’d really like to have in the interest of everyone having SOME of their favorites and “wants.” I also expect we’ll go back to going once a week once Chris no longer has so many hours in an office, but for now, it’ll do! :)

I also like Serious Wine Habit. That’d be a good band name. :)

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RedSirenJulie February 25, 2013 at 8:06 PM

Hi Joan,
I posted on another thread and not sure if it got posted.
I just wanted to say that I am nearly debt free, just another £5000 to go. I am lucky as I was able to sell a share in a property in order to pay a big chunk off!
I am always recommending this site, since I first found it about a year ago.
Julie.

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Joan February 26, 2013 at 10:36 PM

Julie, that’s awesome – comparatively speaking you’re so close!!

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Mike February 25, 2013 at 10:02 PM

We’ve managed to make some progress with our grocery bills, but not as much as we’d like, so this is very timely!

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Joan February 26, 2013 at 10:34 PM

Mike, glad to help!

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Candi February 26, 2013 at 1:55 AM

Since the “junk” food aisles (cookies, crackers and chips) can easily take over our budget, I try to stay away from those areas and instead every week or so I bake something fun like oatmeal or chocolate chip cookies or a 99 cent brownie mix. Sometimes I experiment with “healthier” ingredients like a little whole wheat flour mixed in but mostly it saves us buying a lot of prepackaged crap. I try to throw part of the batch in the freezer for later, but sadly it very seldom stays in there long.

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Joan February 26, 2013 at 10:33 PM

Candi, that’s a great idea! I think that even separate from the health issue, you are certainly getting more for your money, fresher tasting items, and yes, probably healthier too, even if it is just the 99-cent brownie mix!

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daniel February 26, 2013 at 9:46 AM

Very neat post. As a single male that likes to cook, I have some simple rules.

Twice a month CSA Share delivered to my home (comes with a dozen eggs!)
Once a week to the super market
One hand basket full.
Shop only only on the perimeter of the grocery store (this is to help prevent the more expensive highly-processed foods and eat a little more fresh).
Under $100 (I value food a lot and am willing to spend a large % of my budget on it).

There is a cool app here in Austin, Texas that people are starting to use more called Food on the Table. What I feel is unique about it from the other grocery store apps is that it downloads all the stores weekly sales and coupons into the app so you can shop and even generate weekly meal plans accordingly.

http://foodonthetable.com/

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Joan February 26, 2013 at 10:29 PM

Daniel, that sounds like a good system! I don’t think you’re overspending at all for the quality of food you’re describing – to me, that is well worth $100 a week if not a little more!

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Gwen February 26, 2013 at 9:53 AM

Hi !

I have a similar system and that helped me save a LOT of money !

For a family of 4 I spend less than 100€ for the week. Here in France we have new cash registrers (?) that are totally automatic. You take a device when you enter the shop and scan yourself everything. That way I know at every item how much my bill will be.

You made me think that I could try to do it every two weeks instead of every week (I need to check for the peremption dates for the fresh food I use to buy). And as we only have a refrigerator with a really SMALL freezer, it may not work but it worth the try :)

Thank you

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Joan February 26, 2013 at 10:26 PM

Gwen, I’m so glad to hear you have such a great system – and I LOVE that automated checkout idea. There are a few markets here experimenting with that and I’d love to see it adopted wider.

Having a small freezer would make what we do hard for us, because of the amount we rely on things like frozen vegetables, but even if it’s OCCASIONALLY every two weeks, you’re still saving!

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Bilgefisher February 26, 2013 at 11:03 AM

Not an excuse, but grocery costs have nearly doubled in the last few years. Inflation is the hidden tax no one is willing to see.

Jason

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Joan February 26, 2013 at 10:24 PM

Jason, I FULLY agree with that. Our purchasing has not changed much in the past 2 years (and probably has gotten even leaner) but we have seen our every-two-week spending drift up close to $100 for the same items in that time. That’s insane!

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Kathy February 26, 2013 at 5:30 PM

We have a wipe off board on the refrigerator. When something is getting low or is needed it gets written on the board . The saying in our house is if it is not on the board for the shopping trip it will have to wait until the next trip, so make do until then. So everyone has learned to use that wipe off board and when it does come time to make the list I am not spending an hour looking through the cabinets, pantry and fridge to see what is needed. My adult daughter is the one in charge of coupons at home and the store. This would be a good idea for an older child to be given this task makes them part of learning how to budget and shop for groceries. We like to shop at 7 am when it is calm and not to busy. If we go later the store is busier and we find ourselves following the crowd by being in a hurry and we find that we spend more money because we are less aware.

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Joan February 26, 2013 at 10:21 PM

Kathy, that’s pretty smart!! And I agree wholeheartedly with shopping in “off” hours. For us, that veers late rather than early, but very much the same idea, and very much we’re also in line with the idea of our daughter playing a key role!

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Barbara Mark February 26, 2013 at 8:36 PM

what a great article on grocery shopping…I read it through and through, including the comments. I live in a very small town and shop at only one store, once a week, usually on Tuesdays as the sales begin the next day. I also plan menus based upon what is on sale (that I usually buy). we are 2 (older) adults and 1 teen aged grandchild. our teen takes brown bag lunches to school rather than buy hot lunches, so these add to our total bill. we do not eat red meat, so this greatly helps our grocery total, although fish is pricey here inland in Northern Cal. our grocery bill almost never exceeds $500 a month, and is often quite a bit less. thanks for all the tips!

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Joan February 26, 2013 at 10:20 PM

Thanks, Barbara! And good for the three of you on that plan – that sounds awesome, especially for an area that I know is not always the cheapest for certain items!

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OC Budget February 26, 2013 at 9:00 PM

Joan, what is your grocery budget for one month for your family? What stores do you shop at usually? Ever since we moved to a new area, the only grocery stores available to us are the really expensive ones.

For me, it’s just me and my boyfriend (he’s unemployed) and it is about $250 per month. I hope to reduce this even more since we really need to build up on our emergency fund and reduce debt.

Thanks!

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Joan February 26, 2013 at 10:20 PM

Hey OC! I hit on this in another comment, but just to recap:

We’re between $300 and $340 every 2 weeks, including all toiletries/pet items/home products, which when you do it over the year, works out to be just under $750 a month. I’d say any dining-out expenses we have would be less than $50 more a month, maybe $75 at worst. There are probably some outside household expenses – for instance, one of our cats gets his food at our vet’s office, and that’s not in that total, and in the summer, we add in a farmers’ market trip on the off-week and bump the budget by about $20… so I’d say there are months where we’re in the $850 to $900 range for our large assortment of living creatures.

Our main store is a regional chain that gives great rewards, not just gas points but one I didn’t mention – A+ Rewards – essentially any school can earn points back from purchases made from rewards cards that are tied to that school. And our homeschool counts as a “school,” so we have about 7 friends/family members whose spending, along with our own, gets us cash back that we can use for books, etc.

We also have a Walmart and Target nearby with full grocery departments, including produce, as well as another regional chain. None of the four of them are more than a mile and a half from our house!

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Jenny February 27, 2013 at 10:51 AM

Years ago, back when I was still in the US with a van to fill; I initiated an only what I can carry in a shopping basket rule. It was less budget driven, but still quite powerfully do-you-really-need-that driven. I could pick what I wanted, as long as it fit in the basket. I would use a list and often still do, but often it’s short enough to remember, because…
Now that I live abroad, have no car, and have to hand carry, taxi or motorbike taxi everything home – this system is even more critical. With the language barrier and the difficulty I sometimes have just physically getting to the store and getting healthy foods back, as well as difficulty with thoughtful currency conversion (I still often think in dollars and end up overpaying for that reason) I’ve turned to a more buy it if it will help heal or care for your body approach. I mean, I can only carry a couple bags, and some of what’s most healthy will be expensive. But my health over the past several months has said it needs to be the priority. I end up needing to shop a couple of times a week, or eat out, or both, just to get the nutrition I need while also not burdening my wrists, or back or foot with too heavy a load of shopping.
So – I suppose the only what you can carry, make sure it’s for your health plan is alright. Though there are some products that I do say no to over price, and many I know the exact price of. I have tried to go to the store with a calculator and manage the prices more, but I haven’t in awhile. And a lot of places where you get better deals, such as the vegetable market instead of box store it will all be verbal any way. I do have a couple of discount cards, and have saved once in awhile, but I don’t track it. All my receipts are in a language I can’t read. *shrugs
You have to pick your battles. I need to be better about currency awareness, though I think I’m a lot better in my adoptive home currency now. Visiting another nation can easily throw that barometer back off.

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Joan February 27, 2013 at 11:28 AM

Jenny, I will never forget when you told me that all your cooking is on what I’d call a hot plate or a single burner. I cannot even imagine how that would change my grocery and food process! I think that when traveling, I tend to eat my main meals out, and I wouldn’t see any difference in choosing to do that when living abroad for an extended period of time if the conditions where you’re living are such that cooking and shopping are difficult. I think the language barrier has got to make things INCREDIBLY hard!!

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Leah February 27, 2013 at 3:57 PM

Awesome post! I coupon (but not extreme!) and that helps, both store and manufacturer. Typically we save $10-$25 a trip that way. I look for manager’s specials. I pretty much always shop the same store and do their loyalty program, so we get a dollar amount back every quarter ($5-$15 a quarter). We also shoot for doing whole foods as much as possible, and not buying a lot of processed stuff helps in the savings for sure.

I do need to menu plan! That would certainly help us quite a bit. Thanks for the inspiration!

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Joan February 27, 2013 at 6:10 PM

You’re welcome, Leah! I think you’re already much farther than many people!

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Ron P February 27, 2013 at 6:01 PM

Great tips! We tried to implement a menu plan in the past. Your post has inspired me to implement the menu plan again.

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Joan February 28, 2013 at 1:52 PM

Great, Ron! Keep us posted on how it goes.

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Radzone February 27, 2013 at 9:01 PM

and how do you fit all of that in a RV?

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Joan February 27, 2013 at 9:50 PM

I don’t – I fit it in a 4-bedroom house! The Bakers are the former RV-dwellers, though that was in 2011. I’m Joan, and I have lived my entire life in central Pennsylvania. Boy, would that be harder!

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BC March 1, 2013 at 11:22 AM

I spend $150/week on groceries, toiletries, cleaning & paper products for a family of 3 and use the cash envelope system to stay in budget. One bag of dog food per month is not included in this. I don’t meal plan but would really like to try it out.

After working to get in financial shape, it turned out that I have some moderate emotional grocery shopping issues. I grew up in a house where we always had enough, but there was almost never anything to really eat. We were also always running out of paper products, toothpaste, shampoo etc. And I remember that we always had a fridge of salad dressings and condiments but no meat, bread, etc. My brothers could eat a box of cookies or cereal and a half gallon of milk in one sitting! Our single mom struggled to keep up with their enormous appetites. So I really struggle with not over-shopping and stockpiling food and supplies. I don’t hoard stuff, but I have to have one back-up. Getting down to $150 per week was a big deal for us because there was a time when I easily spent twice that each week. But I would like to do better in the future, and aim for $100. Baby steps!

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Aspidistra Bird March 2, 2013 at 11:17 AM

This post and the comments have really helped me refocus on my grocery and household supply shopping budget and process. Thank you!

I am a family of 1 and I spend between $700 – $800 dollars a month on groceries and household supplies, not including pet food! And I don’t eat beef or pork and rarely eat seafood or poultry!

I never really learned to cook, so instead of acquiring that knowledge, I buy a lot of very expensive organic or natural frozen foods and I have never done meal planning. I will go to the farmer’s market and buy a ton of vegetables and end up composting most of them. The last time I signed up for a CSA the compost bin grew huge.

I am going to treat this admission as the first step to curing what is obviously a big problem. So, Hi, my name is Johanna and I seem to have a big food budgeting problem!

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Vic March 2, 2013 at 2:39 PM

I always go beyond my budget at groceries because I can’t control my shopping habits. What I learned is that the most important thing in being a frugal is not only a list or a plan, but our conviction to follow our plan. It’s important to stick with our game plan, because if not, we will lose money.

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Jane March 4, 2013 at 1:45 AM

Hey Joan,

I came across this article and thought you might find it useful to share with the community. It is about a family of 4 who manages to live under 14k a year and how they find creative ways to do groceries.

http://finance.yahoo.com/news/how-a-family-of-four-manages-to-live-well-on-just–14-000-per-year-174803218.html?desktop_view_default=true

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Jody March 4, 2013 at 11:45 AM

Wow. That is amazing and inspiring!

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Raymond Mills March 16, 2013 at 1:53 PM

You are me only 20 years go! I made a good living but I didn’t know how to hang on to any of that money. Then I met my wife. She taught me And together we practiced the following with great results:
1) We made extra payments on our mortgage when we could.
2) We clipped coupons and always bought on sale
3) brown bagged it
4) avoided $4 cups of coffee
5) bought a modest home we could afford.
6) never, never used credit card debt. I work in the credit card business and I can tell you those little plastic squares can ruin a marriage and family.
7) when extra money came our way we spent a little and invested the rest. We bought modest amounts of dividend paying stocks. When that first dividend comes in it is an awesome feeling.
8) drove the same car for 13 years and when we did buy it wasn’t a Mercedes.
9) a big night out was take home chinese or pizza and a $1 movie
10) we refinanced when the rates were favorable.
11) We took vacations that we paid cash for

The results of this life style “living like so few do” are wonderful. When money concerns are removed from your life you will achive an inner peace that is better then any yoga session. Your focus changes, you feel in control. I grew up in a paycheck to paycheck house. If anything broke car, boiler or whatever it was a disaster. It was stressful, not healthy and took our focus off living and enjoying life. Now I spend my days pondering where and when to retire – the choices are endless.

I do not fear the layoff, dental bill or broken transmission. It is a great way to live. So when you feel a little discouraged think about the end game…It is so worth the discipline. I feel truly blessed.

Oh yeah my lunch Thursday was peanut butter and jelly whole wheat sandwich and a mug of chicken soup that I bought from home. The disciplineonce learned never changes.

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radzone March 16, 2013 at 8:58 PM

did that as well for over 26 years. House paid off in 20, no bills, and cash in the bank, same great autos & 2 super awesome kids, then divorce. Life changes oh so abruptly. Nothing left but my kids and a positive (mostly) attitude.

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Raymond Mills March 17, 2013 at 8:01 AM

Rad zone,
“Nothing left but my kids” ..one other thing you forgot to mention: possibilities! You tone tells me you are understandably sad. May this old man offer an unsolicited suggestion work at being happy. Easy to say I know but it is the only way….
RayinPenn

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radzone March 17, 2013 at 8:30 PM

agreed – that’s why I still work on the positive. thanks for the reply – helps keep everything in perspective.

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Josh April 2, 2013 at 9:55 AM

My wife and I have recently started this exact thing. We’re in our 20′s, both fairly active and lean (I’m 6’3″, 200 lbs; she’s 5’5″, 120 lbs), and eat as close to the primal/paleo style as reasonably possible… all of which means that our daily calorie, macro/micro nutrient, and sheer satisfaction targets can be difficult to match when trying to maintain a budget. By planning our meals and shopping once a week, however, we’ve managed to stay around $50/week for groceries (just items on the menu; we have seperate bugets for alcohol, coffee, and restaurants). Our restaurant budget is $20/week and is mostly a slush fund for unplanned invites from friends. That being said, I would highly recommend the Android App ‘Out of Milk’ (it may be available on iOs, but I’m not sure). There is a free version (though I highly recommend supporting the developer by purchasing the premium version for $1.99… it doesn’t have that many more features than the free version, but the dev has done a great job and deserves the support) and it allows you to build an inventory/pantry list, shopping list, and a to-do list. Items can be moved between the pantry and shopping list very easily, and everything can be catergorized (catergories are able to be personalized). You can enter the price for each item on the shopping list as you go (it stores that data for comparison during later shopping trips) and will provide you with a running total of the bill (including tax, which you enter as a percentage in the settings menu). There is also a barcode scanner that will add items to your lists by utilizing the camera to read the barcode on the packaging (I’ve found this works very well for national brands, but not for store brands). Also, if you provide your area code, the app searches the online coupon databases for all of the deals in your area. These deals can be viewed by each store offering them and further filtered by department (meat, produce, boxed goods, etc.). Finally,you can share your lists with anyone else using the app. The list is automatically synched between those who have access to the list. For example, if you’re at home and realize that you are in need of somethings, you can add them to your shopping list, share it with your spouse, and they will immediately appear in the app on your spouses phone. It’s an excellent tool for coordinating menus and shopping for a household. Again, it’s called ‘Out of Milk’. I hope it helps.

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Christina April 6, 2013 at 8:55 AM

Groceries are our biggest expense. We are basically a family of 5 adults ( 3 adult sons still living with us, but paying rent ), plus my 92 year old dad in a hospital bed, with us, in the final stages of Parkinson’s.
I’ve been a lifelong vegetarian, but a couple years ago, came across the book ‘Why We Get Fat and What To Do About It. I’ve mentioned this book in another comment elsewhere on this site, but in a nutshell, credit this book with helping me lose 30 lbs and keeping it off.
So, I basically follow a modified vegetarian style Paleo diet. The rest of the family are not vegetarian, but do eat a lot of fresh produce. This requires a lot of fresh food..which takes up a lot of fridge space. I also buy a few dozen eggs each week, and for ethical reasons, will only buy free range. (It is said that chickens suffer more than any other creature in modern agricultural practises, but in general, the lives of most livestock is a real horror). Our diet consists of a morning vegan protein drink, and raw almonds, and occasionally blueberries. Lunch is a large salad (often Kale), with goat cheese and hard -boiled eggs, with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Supper is fresh, cooked vegetables and tempeh and Tai sauce, or a homemade soup. Then, for my Dad, I have to buy special food items, and I cannot cut corners, because he is so fragile, and needs the best quality food.
In general, we rarely buy junk food, or processed food of any kind. However, I can go to the store every day – especially for fresh produce. I’ve made many attempts to cut our grocery costs by being more organized, but it is still crazy expensive! Groceries are our most expensive item on our budget, but then again, as I said, our sons are helping out contributing to the food bill, and I am happy about the fact that they eat very little crap these days.
I dream of one day having my own chickens and a vegetable garden.

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