By Rhonda Barfield
Almost 25 years ago, my family faced a crisis. We were living in a fast-deteriorating neighborhood and desperately wanted to move to safer area. A home in the suburbs was going to cost an extra $200 a month in rent. But since my husband’s income was already stretched to the breaking point, and I had just lost my part-time job, where could we get the money? In this article, I’ll share how I did it and how you can feed your family for less money every month.
We found the answer in our grocery budget. I took over the shopping and was able to feed my family while cutting our budget from $80 to $100 a week down to $50 by trying a lot of different strategies. I wrote a book about my experiment called Eat Well for $50 a Week, later upgraded to Eat Healthy for $50 a Week, and then, Feed Your Family for $12 a Day.
Feed Your Family For Less Money
With today’s much higher cost of food, it would take a near miracle to feed your family of four or more for $12 a day, much less $50 a week. Still, the principles I discovered years ago still apply. It’s possible to save substantially when grocery shopping if you follow these three tips:
1. Take charge of your food buying.
Could you get by with $150 a week instead of $175? If so, that’s a $100 bill in your pocket every month. Analyze what you’ve been spending and resolve to reduce that amount, even if it’s only a little at first. Stick to your limit, and soon you’ll find all sorts of creative ways to buy more for less.
As a first smart step, put together a price notebook that includes the cost of items you buy most often. This takes almost no time if you shop at a different store each week for three or four weeks. Simply enter the information into a program (like Numbers) on your smartphone (or like me, into a notebook) as you purchase goods. The next week, fill in another row of prices for a second store. By the end of the month, you’ll know exactly how much each commonly purchased item costs, and which supermarket stocks the cheapest options. This also helps when you analyze sales ads. You can spot the best bargains right away.
Now you’re ready to construct a carefully planned weekly shopping list. Begin with the basics such as milk, flour, eggs, ground beef, etc., and then add other items. Estimate the total cost of everything on the list. Then, if you’re under your goal, add a few more items. If over budget, rework your menus and buying plan. These strategies put you in charge of your shopping dollars.
2. Find the cheapest food sources in your area.
In addition to supermarkets, keep your eyes open for alternatives, including day-old bakeries, warehouse clubs, meat markets, health food stores, produce stands, cheese and dairy outlets, wholesale grocers who sell to the public, salvage stores that offer cans with no labels for next to nothing, and more. How do you find these places? Talk to people you know who are especially frugal and ask where they find the best buys. You can also look online or in the yellow pages under “grocers” and “food.” The next time you’re passing close to one of the locations, drop in, with price notebook in hand, and check out your new find.
It’s not worth it, of course, to drive 20 minutes out of your way just to save a dollar. However, you can group your errand running. For example, I often stocked up on fresh, half-price spices when I’d take a long walk through my city’s historic district. I also used to frequent a day-old bakery once a month, while visiting other area stores, for big discounts on Pepperidge Farm whole grain bread. I’d buy a month’s worth and freeze several loaves.
Farmers’ markets can also offer substantial savings. A friend of mine used to get some incredible deals by visiting on the last hour of the last day, often late Saturday afternoon. Kathy found that sellers were ready to lower their prices to rock-bottom rather than taking unsold produce home with them. In a case like this where you could take home bushels of fruits and veggies to feed your family for pennies on the dollar, it would be worth a special trip, especially if you processed and froze most of your finds. The bargain food sources are out there, and you’ll find them if you look for them.
3. Let store personnel help you find the best deals.
Sometimes it takes some probing to locate out-of-the-way bargains. When you’re looking to feed your family on budget, it pays to ask questions. Ask a supermarket produce manager which fruits and veggies are in season and when they will be cheapest and most flavorful. Also inquire as to whether you can buy slightly damaged produce or ripe bananas at a discount. The first time I tried this, the produce manager replied a little condescendingly, “We don’t do that sort of thing here.” The next week, I happened to see the assistant manager, who also said no. A couple of weeks later I went to the store manager with my question, and he responded, “Sure, why not?” Soon afterward, the store started selling bags of ripe bananas for a 50% to 90% discount.
One Christmas, I approached a supermarket butcher and asked his opinion on the best brand of whole hams. He recommended a leaner, cheaper variety than the one I planned to buy. He also told me the store was offering a $2-off coupon, and the meat packing company, a $5 rebate. I saved several dollars and took home a top-quality ham, thanks to a 45-second conversation.
Does your favorite store have a half-price bin? A particular day when they set out discounted meat, if it’s close to its expiration date?Ask, and you may be surprised at what you find. I still remember my first time, 25 years ago, walking into the supermarket with my $50-a-week budget, and emerging later with three skinny bags of groceries—hardly enough to feed my family for seven days. My failure motivated me to do some serious research before my next shopping trip, and it helped. Gradually I learned what I needed to know. Each week I bought a little more food for my money.
I Was Able To Feed My Family On A Lean Budget!
You can do the same. Determine to take charge of your grocery shopping. Start a price notebook. Set a weekly budget, and do your best to stick with it. Keep your eyes open for alternative sources of food. Wherever you visit, ask questions and learn how the store personnel can help you find bargains. A dollar here and a dollar there can make a tremendous, positive difference in both your food bill and your life.
Rhonda is wife to Michael, a former homeschool teacher, and mother of four young adults. She’s authored five books—Real-Life Homeschooling: The Stories of 21 Families Who Teach Their Children at Home and four on saving money on groceries—plus 120+ articles. Rhonda also coaches students for WriteAtHome.com and teaches piano.