The freezer’s empty. So are the cabinets, pantry, fridge, and that little shelf above the stove. For whatever reason, you “ate down your freezer.” Maybe you’ve moved and need to fill the cabinets. Or, perhaps you’ve gone out on your own for the very first time. This is a great time to form frugal shopping habits. It will not be an overnight process.
It’s important to remember through this process that you may not be able to make “recipes” from the foods you’re restocking, but you will eat well. Your weekly goals will be twofold: feed your family for the week, and build up a little extra cushion. So simple meals might be just right. A little protein, two vegs, a while grain, and a drink for dinner. Being flexible is key, but you’ve already learned that.
Let’s start with the tools you’ll need. First, a budget. This is not a post about how to prepare a budget. There are many out there, but I’m not going to add to them. What I will tell you is that you can’t start replenishing in a frugal way until you have a dollar amount set for your food each week. Of course, if you’ve eaten down your food stash because of financial issues, you probably have already been working on that budget. So, for purposes of this lesson, let’s say you’re a family of four, with a food (and only food) budget of $85 per week.
Oh, yes, I did!! It is entirely possible to feed your family healthfully on $85 per week! You’re going to be buying the least expensive ingredients, no junk, and no desserts. It won’t kill any of you. It might be healthier than the stuff you had in your pantry.
Find something to write on and something to write with. Make them portable. I like a steno pad with a pen stuck in the spiral.
You’ll need coupons, either clipped from the newspaper inserts, from the mail, or printed from online sources. Don’t skip the coupons sections of the grocery web sites, or overlook the Our Family coupons online for local deals. Any coupon for any item you might buy at the right price, should get clipped. Who’s to say those $3 frozen skillet vegs won’t be clearanced for $1, and there you’ll sit with a .50 coupon. So many times I’ve gotten super deals, or even FREE food this way. Buy One/Get One — BOGO — deals are sweeter with even a .25 coupon. Clip ’em; keep ’em. More on coupons later.
And you’ll need the current sale prices, either through paper ads or from the Internet. In Omaha, the weekly grocery ads are distributed on Wednesdays (because that’s when most grocery stores start their weekly sales). If you don’t have a daily World-Herald subscription, you’ll get them in the mail. (Consider it a bonus, but it’s really a way of providing 100% market coverage and phenomenal ad circulation numbers.) Or, if you’d rather get the prices online, or before your mail arrives, look up these stores: BagNSave, Baker’s, Fareway, HyVee, No Frills, SuperSaver, SuperTarget. EDIT: Fareway has once again changed their site, and the Omaha site is not functional. If you really want to see their ads online, go here.
The next step is finding out what you can get with your weekly budget. Note in the sale ads that some items are incredible deals. These are “loss leaders” designed to get you in the store. Those are the deals you want! How do you know if it’s the lowest price? If you’ve been keeping track (which you may not have if you haven’t been buying groceries for a while), you’ll have a comparison base. If not, compare one store’s ad to another’s, to start. If in doubt, write it down, and when you get to the store you’ll be able to tell. On your piece of paper/notebook/whatever, write the brand, item, size, sale price and store. Also note if there’s a limit, say of 2 milks at 1.99. I abbreviate the store: BnS, Bak, HV. Circle the price in the ad to make it easier to find if needed. You should find at least a few deals, and in a good week, a pageful.
Some rules of thumb I use for loss leaders include: I only buy beef or pork at less than $2/pound, chicken breasts at less than $1.75/pound, and thighs at less than .80/pound. I’ll buy peanut butter when it drops to .99 (and buy several). Frozen vegs will go on sale regularly for .88/16 oz. bag.
Now, turn to your coupons. Here in Omaha, some stores have loss leaders to match some of each week’s coupons. Other stores will run specials toward the coupon expiration. You don’t always know when the match will come, and sometimes it won’t. So keep your coupons organized, and always look for a match. If you have a coupon for the same brand and size that’s on sale, mark on your list that you have a coupon. I use a circled C.
So now you have a list of the great sales, where the deals are, and which have coupons to match. You also have a budget amount. Before you head to the store, though, you’ll need to decide if you want to go to one store and price match, or go to a few of your favorite stores as you pass them during the week. If you’re hitting a few stores, just take your stuff with you each day and stop when you pass. Purchase refrigerated and frozen goods on the way home.
If you’re making one price-match trip, you have two choices in Omaha: SuperSaver or WalMart. [EDIT: Oops, FW will also price match, but since I don’t go there (see my older post), I am not figuring that in the equation.] There are rules. Both will match national and store brands, and both will often have lower shelf prices than ad prices (so pay attention). At WalMart, you can also match non-grocery prices (shampoo, detergent, etc.). At SuperSaver, you bag your own groceries. You will need to have the ads with you, and they’ll want to see them, because the cashiers don’t have all the prices memorized.
You’ve got your tools, your plan and your game face. Tomorrow we shop!