But I know family members and friends who just “can’t get into it”. Determine a budget? Set a menu for the week? Write a grocery list?
Not happening, they say.
Even if it means they could be unnecessarily spending hundreds, even thousands of dollars more than they need to on food, they just cannot be bothered to take any extra steps before hitting the grocery store.
They simply prefer to wing it.
Such talk and behavior makes this thrifty soul wince.
But I realize all too well that they are hardly a minority in wanting to avoid the work and planning that sometimes goes into a budget lifestyle. Even if the rewards over the long haul can be huge.
So it set me to thinking about ways to save that don’t involve extra effort.
And I came up with several that really do not involve any pre-planning or initiative at all.
I don’t think these steps could be any simpler:
How’s that for painless advice? And I mean it, too! It’s a fact that every trip to the store becomes a temptation to spend more than you need to or should.
Shop for everything you need for a whole week in one single trip to the store and skip the little side trips that can add up. The less time you spend in the grocery store, the more you save.
2. Stop buying soda, sports drinks, juice packs, etc.
Of course we all know that soda has zero nutritional value, so it has no place in any health-conscious or budget-conscious household.
However, this also holds true for all manner of drinks, from juice packs, to sports drinks, to lemonade, to flavored waters, etc., etc.
They are all an unnecessary expense, loaded with sugar and unnecessary calories, and incredibly wasteful of resources besides.
And it may come as a surprise to many that juice is loaded with almost as much sugar as soda.
There is no reason for children or adults to be drinking large or multiple glasses of fruit juice each day. That is simply unhealthy.
It’s far better to eat whole fruit portions instead and stick to water as your beverage of choice.
If you must have sugary drinks, then at the very least skip the pre-mixed versions and the bottles, cans, and individual juice packs, and buy it in the cheaper powder form so that you can cut your costs and control the sugar content.
Make your own mixture and pour it into reusable sippy cups or juice boxes for children instead of super expensive and wasteful throwaways.
So do yourself a favor and don’t even put these budget-busting drink products in your shopping basket.
Related Article: Sugar in Our Food: How to Avoid It
Let’s be clear. With a few exceptions, such as the tragic, ongoing situation in Flint, Michigan, we have safe drinking water coming right out of our taps in this country.
That’s perfectly potable water at our fingertips that costs us only pennies.
There is no need to spend 300X-2000X more than that on bottled water (yes, you read that right!).
In addition, municipal water supplies are monitored and regulated. The bottled water industry is not held to uniform standards at all.
The push to promote bottled water has undoubtedly been one of the most genius marketing campaigns in U.S. history, an advertising blitz that has led people to waste huge amounts of money on this product.
If you’re concerned about water quality, then buy yourself a simple filter such as Brita or a similar product. Get a reusable Nalgene or metal bottle (as shown above), and before you leave the house, fill it up from your faucet or the filter system you choose to use. You’ll save big.
In other words, don’t be an easy mark for the bottled water industry.
Be a smart consumer and just drink from the tap.
Related Article: How to Break Your Budget Busting Bottled Water Habit
This is easy. I’ve already mentioned it in previous blogs, but it bears repeating over and over again.
Just look for the unit price labels on the store shelves and buy the item with the lowest price per pound, ounce, quart, etc., etc.
That price helps you determine which product is the more economical one even when they come in packages of different sizes and shapes, and even when you have buy one, get one free, or any kind of special promotion going on.
It will reveal whether an item on sale is actually a better buy than ones that are regular price.
Surprisingly, sales are not always all they're cracked up to be. And the unit price reveals that.
In the pictures above on the left, the unit price is the one you see in the orange box on shelf below the tomato product.
And as you can see, for these products, the one can is more than 2.5X the price of the other can!
This colored pricing sticker makes it easy to see, but many stores don't make it that obvious.
In those cases where it's not labeled with a unit price, calculate it yourself using your phone or a pocket calculator to divide the total price paid by the total units of measure in the product.
Now, there are a couple of exceptions to this rule, such as for fruit that will be eaten whole. In that case you would divide the price paid by the servings you're getting rather than by the pound.
This helps avoid paying extra for over-sized pieces that are more than a portion size and/or have lots of extra peel that’s included in the price you pay.
But for the most part, using unit pricing is a solid, easy budget practice to follow. No effort or pre-planning involved, just common sense comparison shopping.
5. Buy Generic or Store Brands
Let me stress the importance of avoiding brand loyalty or developing expensive tastes.
If you're serious about staying on a budget, you must turn a deaf ear to marketing campaigns or peer pressure. Companies have big budgets dedicated to trying to separate you from your money.
Maintain your savvy budget consciousness and don't be taken in or led astray by slick advertising.
Stay focused on your bottom line and value shopping, and take advantage of the bargains often presented by store and/or generic brand products.
I have found that most of these products are excellent and can represent tremendous savings over brand names.
6. Minimize food waste.
If you throw food away due to spoilage or otherwise, you are wasting it and in essence throwing money out the window. It’s really that simple. After all, you wouldn't throw dollar bills away, so avoid doing it indirectly with food.
Avoid buying perishable food you don't need or can't use or freeze before its expiration date. That may mean skipping those bulk purchases at places like Costco. Or those buy one, get one free sales. There are no savings in thrown out food.
Find a recipe that will use the perishables you have on hand before buying more to add to the supply.
Use up leftovers or freeze them for a future meal.
Apportion large quantity purchases or meals - such as the large ham and the lasagna on the left - into meal or individual sizes; label and date them; and store them in containers or plastic bags in the freezer for later use.
7. Know and buy appropriate portions sizes for things like meat, fruit, etc.
Most Americans consume portions much larger than they need to sustain a healthy weight, and they do not even realize it.
For example, a portion of meat is 4 ounces, about the size of a deck of cards -- not a slab of steak that takes up half the plate, or a 1- inch thick stack of deli meats piled on a sandwich.
Keep that in mind when shopping, and avoid overbuying.
Fruit is another area that can be quite expensive, so knowing about portion sizes can help your bottom line.
Be aware that much of the fruit you see in the produce section is far larger than you need. This tends to be particularly the case with loose fruit that can be bigger than a softball in size.
And it's very often the case with the fruit sold at big box stores, such as Costco.
Bagged fruit is often closer to the appropriate baseball size you should be looking for.
Bigger is not better and often leads to waste, particularly with small or young children. They will eat half of a large piece of fruit, and then throw the rest away. It happens all the time in my classroom.
That waste is the reason that fruit and produce are two of the few areas where the unit price rule does not necessarily hold true, and the price per pound is not as informative as is the price per serving.
So calculate the price per serving by dividing the total cost by the number of pieces you get for that price.
Three to four servings per pound is a good goal when buying apples, oranges, peaches, nectarines, etc.
Related Article: Individual Portion Sizes and Their Impact on Your Budget
This is the flip side of Minimizing Waste. You definitely don’t want to be throwing food away, but you also want to take advantage of the savings when items are on sale.
Let me be clear here, though. You should stock up ONLY on items that you normally use.
There’s simply no sense in spending money on items you rarely or never use just because they are on sale.
Unnecessary purchases don’t save money at all, regardless of how cheap they are.
Store the extra non-perishables that you buy anywhere that you can find space – under-bed storage bins or collapsible, zippered cloth storage containers work quite well if you are short on shelves or cupboards -- that is out of the direct light and away from a heat source.
Buy extra perishable items only if you can use them before they spoil and/or have the room to store them in the freezer.
Things like bread, meat, and frozen vegetables, etc. keep a long time when frozen. Otherwise it’s #6 all over again, and you want to avoid that.
It definitely does pay to tidy and rearrange your freezer to maximize the storage space. Follow the same practice in #6 above and break up any large packages of fresh meat into meal portions and store them in freezer bags, clearly marked with the date.
That way, they are available to grab as needed.
What's not to like about this piece of advice?
It actually shortens your trips to the grocery store, AND it saves you money.
Fewer aisles mean fewer temptations for impulse purchases. And if you stick to the aisles I recommend below, it will help you eat healthier, too.
Now I know people are often tempted to stroll all the aisles just in case they see something they would otherwise “forget".
Of course, if you have a list and a plan, you have everything written down already, so that isn’t even an issue. But since this article is geared specifically for people who cannot bring themselves to make or use a list, that's a moot point.
Whether you are a super organized type, or one who is less so, it pays to realize how very clever stores are in their marketing. They very deliberately set up displays all along the way to entice you to buy things you never knew you “needed”.
So skip the little side trips to avoid these spending traps.
10. Know Basic Grocery Store Lay-Out
And that previous point brings me to this one that can also be a definite help in saving money.
You’ll find that the most nutritionally dense and freshest foods are mainly found on the outside aisles of the typical grocery stores. (Of course, sometimes the bakery is, too, with all its sweet temptations, so that would be one exception to this generalization.)
But broadly speaking, if you stick to the sections listed below and avoid the aisles that contain all the prepared and convenience foods, as well as the snack and junk foods, you’ll do yourself an enormous favor.
Skip most of the aisles and focus on the ones that contain the following:
· Pasta and Rice
· Canned tomato product
· Dry or canned legumes
Follow this rule of thumb and you will avoid filling your cart with a lot of junk food that's tough on the bottom line as well as the waistline.
But beyond that basic grocery store lay-out, there are other things to notice and keep in mind.
As I've mentioned before, stores like to entice you to spend money. One way they do this is by placing more expensive products in such a way that you do not realize you are paying more than you should.
For example, stores will often place a small sampling of salsa next to the tortilla chips, knowing that customers are probably looking to purchase both items.
Typically, though, the salsa they display here is not the cheapest one available in the store. That would be located a few aisles over in a whole section of salsa that offers much more variety.
But if you don't know any better and are not familiar with the store lay-out, you would simply grab for the convenient jar placed right by the chips and end up spending more than necessary.
Another example is dairy products. Usually, the more expensive cheeses are placed near or in the deli section, while the less expensive ones are located in the dairy section near the butter and yogurt.
And yet another is in the area of spices and seasonings. Often, the stores will place their premium priced spices in a prominent area and tuck the cheaper generic, store, or Badia brand in a separate aisle that's harder to find.
There are likely similar examples all over your grocery store that lead people to spend more than they need to without realizing that they have less expensive alternatives.
So it pays to familiarize yourself with the way things are laid out at your store and ensure that you are getting the most value for the money spent.
Meat is a very expensive form of protein and can really decimate the budget if you are not very careful.
I recommend becoming a "flexitarian" - someone who takes their protein from many different sources and only sometimes from meat - but when you do buy meat, never pay full price for it.
This also ties in with the planning I so strongly recommend doing before any trip to the grocery store.
But the bottom line is that you will not likely be able to stick to a budget unless you shop the sales and buy at the lowest price possible.
But meat is such an expensive source of protein that even if you buy it on sale – the only way you should buy it (yes, I will keep drilling that point) - it’s still very seldom a truly budget meal.
There are many other, far cheaper options for obtaining the protein you need in your diet.
If you have not done so already, then broaden your dietary horizons and palate with recipes that call for alternatives to meat, such as lentils, chick peas, and the wide assortment of beans that are available.
And they also have a far less negative impact on the planet. After all, it takes far fewer resources to grow a pound of beans than it does to produce one pound of meat.
So try a few plant-based protein options for a change. Even if you eat meat-free just one day a week, that’s a help, both budget-wise and environmentally speaking.
Related Article: Budget Eating Can Be Good for Your Health
I know this sounds sacrilegious to some, but the truth is, organic is so absurdly priced that it makes no sense for a budget household.
Our food supply is actually quite safe, and eating organic does not protect you from some of the more serious bacteria-borne food illnesses, such as E coli and salmonella anyway. It is also not necessarily better for the planet.
And from a health perspective, you’ll do yourself far more good if you simply eat more fruits and vegetables, period.
Regardless of whether they are organic or not.
So, buy organic by all means if --and only if --it’s the lowest price product.
Or grow your own. We have had great success over the years using the suggestions in the book Square Foot Gardening.
Rent a community garden plot, or make use of whatever small space you have in your yard, on your deck, or even your fire escape, to grow even just a few tomatoes and salad greens.
Here's a great website that focuses on growing vegetables in containers.
Otherwise, just skip the organic label and instead put the money toward eating more produce in general.
Related article: Organic Food as a Necessity?
Whenever there’s a lot of hype around certain products, you can almost guarantee that there's a clever marketing campaign behind it geared to making you spend more.
Almond milk is a case in point. It is one of the latest must-have products, and sales have skyrocketed in recent years.
It can cost 4X what regular milk costs, however, and needs to be fortified to contain the same calcium and protein. So, unless you are lactose intolerant, there’s no need for such extravagance.
Quinoa is another example. It's truly an excellent food, but its trendiness has driven the price into the stratosphere. So much so that in the countries where it used to be a staple, the locals can no longer afford to eat it.
Get your fiber and protein as much as possible from much cheaper brown rice and legumes instead.
Greek yogurt also falls into this category. Again, it is a very good product, but the cost can be more than double that of regular yogurt and is really not justifiable on a budget.
Keep that in mind when making your choice. And maybe try making your own at home. It's not hard at all.
There are countless other examples of budget busting food trends. Be aware of them, and stick to lower cost alternatives.
This may be another no-brainer for many of us, but in this day and age of huge availability and an ethic of convenience and fast food taking precedence over everything else, it has become much more of a problem.
From both a budget and a health perspective, processed foods can wreak havoc.
Related article: Cooking and Eating Your Way to Health and Savings
Even on sale, they are substantially more expensive than a home-cooked meal. A packaged meal or prepared item may cost 3-5x as much per portion as a meal you prepare yourself.
And their processing often includes tons of hidden salt, sugar, fats and other unpronounceable ingredients.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of the people I know who stock their freezer with Costco frozen restaurant meals are also the ones who struggle the most with their weight, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
It’s better to invest that money in a few staples to have on hand so that you can always throw a quick meal together at a moment’s notice.
Your dollars will go a lot further that way. And you will probably feel a lot better, too. I will detail some of those versatile food products to keep on your shelves in a future blog.
Usually – though not always – the larger packages of food are the cheapest ones by unit price.
You pay a premium for someone else to divvy food up into individual packets. Some cases in point are yogurt, chips, pretzels, cheese and crackers, etc., etc.
It’s an easy thing to buy the bigger size and take out the individual portions as you use them.
All you need are some individual-size storage containers, such as Gladware for things like the yogurt, and sandwich bags for things like the snack items.
As to convenience foods, they are everywhere, as is their premium pricing.
Pre-cut and/or pre-washed vegetables and fruit in the produce section, or seasoned, frozen vegetables in the freezer aisle, or pre-cooked rice in the grocery area all fall into this category.
The convenience and temptation to buy them may be great, but they are typically 3-4x the price of the whole fruit or vegetable.
There is really no reason to pay the huge mark-up in price for someone else to do preparation work that you can easily do on your own.
Even if you are new to the whole concept of cooking, with practice you will soon become competent and quick at food prep. Paying a whole lot extra for convenience is simply not worth the price.
Some other places you might not be aware that you are often paying extra for labor are such things as pre-packaged "hearts" of celery, or broccoli crowns that have had their stems removed (which, by the way, is often the sweetest part of the broccoli), or romaine lettuce that comes 3 to a package and has had the outer leaves removed.
Or perhaps most common and expensive of all -- the pre-washed, pre-cut bags of salad greens that are priced at many times the sale price of the unprepared whole heads of lettuce.
Seriously, it takes only a minute or two to do this kind of prep for yourself, so it’s hardly worth paying that much higher price.
Be aware of the potential extra cost for these types of items and choose the whole celery bunch, or the entire head of romaine lettuce, or the whole broccoli, and do your own washing and cutting at home.
The savings can be substantial.
This may surprise some readers to see this on the list. I myself was a regular customer of these stores when they first came on the scene.
But over time it became clear to me that I was not actually saving anything at all – in fact, quite the opposite - and I was also spending more time shopping than when I just stuck to my regular grocery store.
Yes, it’s true that huge stores like Costco, Sam’s Club, and BJ’s can offer some great prices on certain items. But if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that it’s actually exceedingly rare for a family to save money by visiting these stores.
That’s because any deals are offset by:
- the membership fee;
- the fact that most shoppers end up buying far more than they need or can use of a given product;
- the reality that many a consumer invariably ends up with impulse purchases in their cart that they would never normally put there except for the enticements they see while browsing the endless aisles of these vast stores;
- the extra time, gas, and mileage it takes to get to one of these immense emporia.
So my recommendation is to avoid these stores altogether, or at least limit your forays there.
This advice also extends to the more expensive grocery chains ones such as Trader Joe’s and my particular favorite - Whole Foods, of “whole foods, whole paycheck” fame. UPDATE- With the purchase of this high-priced store by Amazon, that may change. But I strongly doubt they will ever be able to compete with my local grocery options or Aldi.
Maintain strong skepticism about their pricing until they prove otherwise.
Don't be a victimized into paying outrageous prices just because of the cachet attached to these stores. You are far better off sticking to your local grocery store chains.
As I said in item #1 on the list, you save money when you minimize your visits to the store. Keep your grocery shopping routine simple and combine it all into one trip a week to one store a week.
Related article: Costco (and Other Big Box Stores) Savings Myth
When you buy strawberries in February, you are paying for them to be transported from across the country, or even from overseas somewhere.
The same goes for vegetables such as corn. Any time it appears in the produce department before mid-late July in the Northeast, it’s a fairly safe bet that it came from Florida.
Besides often paying a premium for such an item, the consumer is also buying food that is typically bred less for flavor than for easy transport.
That is one reason the difference in the taste experience between a locally grown, tree-ripened peach and one that has been trucked 3000 miles can be a revelation. There is absolutely no comparison between the two.
So stick to fruit that’s in season in your local area, and you might discover some flavor sensations that you never realized you were lacking and save money to boot.
I know families who go through 2-4 rolls of paper towels a day.
At 99¢ a roll for the generic brand, that adds up to at least $14 per week. For the name brands, it’s double and triple that amount. So, over the course of a year, these families are spending in the range of $750-4500 just on paper towels!
Even if someone is using only one quarter of that, that still adds up to hundreds of dollars in a year. I don't know about you, but I can think of many ways I'd rather spend that kind of money than on paper towels.
So I recommend breaking the paper towel habit as soon as possible.
Use cloth hand and dish towels, along with cloth dish rags, in their place.
A set of 3-4 towels can be found on sale for under $10.
And dishrags are also inexpensive. Have 6-8 on hand for the kitchen, so that you can hang out a fresh one daily and put the dirty ones in the laundry.
For other kinds of spills and general cleaning, skip the absurdly expensive single use items, such as Swiffer products, and replace them with old-fashioned rags and/or mops and a bit of water.
Rags are eminently superior to wipes and the like for just about any cleaning chore or anything that requires absorbency.
Mops and rags cost far less -- or nothing at all if they are made of old, worn out clothing (cotton undershirts, cotton underwear and cotton socks make the best rags), with the added benefit that they can be used over and over again after washing.
Cotton rags are excellent for just about any cleaning need, from damp dusting, to floor washing, to drying off pets after a bath, to cleaning up spills.
Switch from throwaways and disposables to this time-tested “product”, and the savings will be major.
So there you have 20 easy, no-prep, no-plan ways to save substantial money off your grocery bill.
Even the most unmotivated of individuals can follow at least a few of these without expending much effort at all.
And who knows, maybe once they see the savings they can achieve with these simple steps, these budget novices will decide it’s worthwhile to carry it one step further and garner the much more substantial savings that a little effort and planning can bring.