It can sound a bit like a broken record, but I cannot stress enough how key it is if you want to successfully live within tight financial constraints.
Without planning, your best intentions to limit your expenditures remain just that ---- good intentions.
Putting just a little effort into getting organized can pay huge dividends in terms of savings.
It has worked out that way for our household, for sure. I have typically spent far less on food and groceries than the average U.S. household, and that has amounted to hundreds, thousands, and even tens of thousands of dollars in savings over the years.
I see no point in making it more of a chore and spending more time on it than need be.
That no-fuss, get-it-done attitude is pretty much my approach to all household matters, come to think of it.
It's worked very well for me over the years and helped me keep my sanity and a sense of order through some extraordinarily busy times -- such as when I was working full time, going to grad school full time, and running my household.
It wasn't an easy time, but planning ahead got us through it in good health - both physical and financial.
With practice, it can be the same for you. It’s definitely worth it. Here are some suggestions to get you started on the planning process:
For some people this is a no-brainer.
However, I'm betting that for some of you reading this who are used to living by the seat of their pants, it comes as a surprise to learn that you can and should actually set the amount you want to spend --- and stick to it.
That amount might vary somewhat, depending on your income, but even if you have the good fortune to make oodles of money, I’d recommend keeping your food budget conservative.
It simply defies common sense to spend more than is necessary to eat well.
When food budgets expand with rising income, chances are the money is being spent on food and drinks that do not add to your health or well-being, but probably do add to your waistline.
To give you an idea, I live in one of the most expensive states in the country, and when my 4 boys were growing up, my budget was around $150 for the week for our household of 6, and I often spent less, around $135 per week.
That included all meals, snacks, and household cleaning supplies, as well as such things as toilet paper.
Today, I find a budget of $28-35 per person to be absolutely painless, and easily achievable.
I recommend shopping wisely, banking any savings, and putting it towards something more meaningful, enduring, and memorable than processed and overpriced food or drink.
This is very important to avoid food waste.
You will want to incorporate these perishable foods in your meals for that week so that you don't end up throwing them out.
Throwing out food is like throwing out money -- definitely not something you want to do.
So make note of what you have on hand and plan to use them before adding to your supply.
Step 3 - USE YOUR LOCAL GROCERY STORE FLYERS TO SEE WHAT'S ON SALE
These flyers are available through the mail or on-line. Use them to see what’s on sale for the week.
Some phone apps I've heard of also supposedly do comparison shopping for you for stores in your areas, so you might want to check them out, too.
But I don't recommend chasing from store to store to score sales on individual products -- unless it's a very big ticket item.
Instead, I prefer to shop at one store each week to save time - which is a precious resource to me.
So I use the flyer from that one store to check the sales, and that works just fine for my purposes.
Step 4 - PLAN YOUR MENU FOR THE WEEK
Once you know what products are on sale and what you already have in your fridge or cupboard, consult your favorite cookbooks or websites to find recipes that will make use of those ingredients.
Using your cookbooks and/or the internet, come up with a menu for the week. Write down your menu for at least 7 days, including ALL meals and snacks, and the ingredients you need for each one.
You want to plan for at least a week at a time so that you can take care of your grocery shopping in one trip. The less time you spend in the grocery store, the less money you are likely to spend.
Some families I know plan for two weeks at a time and save even more that way. And I have two friends who shop once a month for super savings. That's something to strive for, but to start, I recommend the one-week-at-a-time planning since it's more achievable for beginners in this whole meal planning thing.
Below is one type of planner you can use to help you remember all the meals and ingredients you will need for the week.
I recommend hanging it on the refrigerator or in some other obvious place so family members can see the plan for school or office lunches and what's for dinner each day.
Use the menu you’ve created to come up with a grocery list. Start with a draft list where you write down all the ingredients, including spices and seasonings, you need for the recipes you've chosen for meals and snacks for the week ahead.
That way you are less likely to forget anything.
Once you have all the ingredients listed, check your cupboards and refrigerator to see what you already have on hand, such as staples. Cross those items off your grocery list. Chances are, you will eliminate quite a few items from your list once you've done this.
Take the time to also check supplies like toilet paper, soap, and detergent, etc., too, to see if you need to add them to your list.
And refer to any lists that you have hanging on your fridge (or elsewhere) where, over the course of the week, you might have written down things you need as you noticed them getting low in supply, or you used them up.
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A time saving tip is to organize this list by grocery department. In other words, group items from the same department together, such as all produce items together, all dairy items together, all bakery items together, etc.
This helps prevent wasting time in the grocery store with the back and forth wandering that can occur if you make your list more scattershot.
And once you know the lay-out of your grocery store, you can save additional steps by organizing the list in the order you pass through the different departments.
Again, this helps prevent a lot of redundant going up and down aisles and enables you to get through the shopping chore more quickly.
I can get in and out of my store in about 30 minutes. That's until they deliberately change the lay-out, of course, which stores periodically do to force customers to visit aisles they wouldn't normally.
When that happens, it slows me down for a few weeks until I familiarize myself with the location of stuff again.
It's all a game to get you to spend more, so it pays to be savvy and aware of these practices. But armed with this list, you will be in excellent shape to beat them at their own game and keep your budget on track.
Step 6 - TAKE YOUR LIST, A PEN OR PENCIL, AND SOME TYPE OF CALCULATOR TO THE GROCERY STORE.
(Okay, I know I said 5 steps, but this step technically happens when you get to the grocery store, not before.)
Use the pen or pencil to cross items off the list as you put them in your cart.
That little step can save you from missing an item and having to backtrack through the store, or - even more annoying - not noticing it until you get home.
Employ the calculator to track your expenses as you put things in your cart and make sure you are not going over budget.
Most of all, make sure you are sticking to your list. This is absolutely crucial.
Your careful planning means you have included everything required to eat for the week, so there is no need to deviate and add things to your cart that are not on that list. You can also skip many aisles of the grocery store, using this approach.
You will save big bucks IF you maintain the discipline you need to avoid the siren call of the impulse purchase. Giving into those urges can make your budget absolute toast.
So there you have it: the five basic, beginning steps to eating well on a budget.
Consistency is important, so be sure to follow each one despite temptations to skip one or the other. With time, they will become part of your routine and largely effortless.
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