Financial experts will tell you that you don’t have to make more money to increase your financial wealth. What’s as—if not more— important, they say, is doing more with the money you already have. This is especially true in today’s uncertain economy.
So how do you spend smarter? A good place to start is by looking at your food budget. If, like me, you have a growing family and limited resources, groceries (food and household products) are a major monthly expense. But I’ve learned that, with a little planning and creativity, I can shave at least 25 percent off my grocery bill.
Here are some ways I do it:
1. Plan menus around the weekly supermarket sale circular. Advance planning helps save money, and basing your meals on what’s on sale reduces the stress of deciding what to make for dinner. Be creative. If pork roast is half price this week, buy a larger roast than you need and plan meals using the leftovers—stir-fry, for example. You could also freeze part of the roast for another week.
2. Clip coupons only for items you frequently use. Coupons are a must when on a tight food budget, but clipping coupons for items you don’t need can encourage unnecessary spending.
3. Match coupons to store specials. Most stores will allow you to use both a manufacturer’s coupon and a store coupon. I always take advantage of this, even if it’s for an item I may not use right away. Sometimes I even get the item for free this way.
4. Compare unit pricing. Prices can be deceiving. It’s the unit price, not the actual price, that will reflect the value of what you’re purchasing.
5. Consider store brands. Even with a coupon, a name brand item may be more expensive than the store brand. Store-brand quality is generally comparable to name brand. Many store-brand items are actually produced by name-brand manufacturers.
6. Check the reduced-price produce cart. This is a great place to find bargains, since fruits and vegetables need to sell quickly or they are thrown away. If you don’t think you’ll be able to use what’s there right away, buy it anyway! You can freeze most vegetables for later use in casseroles or one-pot dinners (like pasta or rice-based dishes).
7. Use bleach to clean almost anything. No need to buy fancy name-brand cleaners. Bleach is an inexpensive and effective cleaner/disinfectant for most cleaning jobs.
8. Learn to love beans. Alternative protein sources like beans, eggs, cheese and tofu are less expensive and often healthier than meat. I often cook with beans, creating my own dishes with a variety of vegetables, using pasta, rice or potatoes as a base. Canned beans are fine, but dried beans are even more inexpensive.
One of my family’s favorite dishes is my pasta with cannelloni (white kidney) beans and plum tomatoes. It’s so easy. I simply sauté garlic in olive oil, cook chopped tomatoes (canned tomatoes work well, too) and beans with basil, salt and pepper. Pour over penne or pasta shells and top with grated Romano cheese. This is a quick, inexpensive and healthy dish.
Another favorite quick and easy, fun thing to make is your own bread. We go through a lot of bread in our house so it makes sense to reduce your carbon footprint and make your own. This does not need to be time consuming or difficult, personally I use my trusty Ankarsrum stand mixer to do all the hard work for me and then I simply enjoy the smell of baking bread all day.
9. Shop the periphery of the store. This is where you’ll find the fresh food and some of the staple items you’ll need. Only shop the interior aisles for a few staples, such as pasta, rice, canned beans or vegetables. Those aisles are filled with packaged and convenience foods that are generally more expensive and less nutritious.
10. Last, never, ever shop for food when you are hungry. This is the time when you are most susceptible to impulse buying.
The recipe for inexpensive and nutritious eating is a planning your meals before you shop and being selective in your choice of what you buy. Make planning part of your weekly routine. Get your children involved. Saving money through meal planning and preparation is rewarding, and it can actually be quite a lot of fun.
Look Who’s in the Kitchen with Mom
I have two young daughters, ages 6 and 9, who enjoy the creative aspects of meal planning and preparation. I stress to them the importance of good, balanced nutrition when planning a meal, regardless of how little it costs. They both love salad and pasta, so I enlist their help in creating inventive salad, pasta or one-pot dishes. We vary the dishes by trying different protein sources, like beans, cheeses, nuts or meat (usually left over from another meal). We experiment with a medley of fresh vegetables—we also use frozen—and a variety of carbohydrate sources, such as rice, couscous, other grains or potatoes. My 6-year-old especially enjoys her role as my “salad chef” and loves to demonstrate her artistry in arranging the ingredients.
I try to teach them the art of cooking intuitively—that is, understanding what foods, herbs and spices work well together so that they can create a nutritious and tasty meal with whatever they’ve got on hand. No need to use a recipe or run to the market to get that one missing ingredient! For that reason, I always keep certain low-cost staple items in my pantry. They include olive oil, balsamic vinegar, wine, garlic, canned tomatoes, artichokes, olives, canned beans and fish, pasta, rice, grated or wedge cheese, frozen vegetables and dried herbs and spices.
Often, I’ll calculate for my daughters the cost of the meal we’re preparing to demonstrate how we can eat well for little money. On one recent expedition to my local Shop-Rite I saved $70 through some special coupon deals and by using their bonus card. We never ate better!