If you’re new to the Frugal Grocery Guide, read this first.
Once you have a handle on the sale prices at a few stores in your area, you need a shopping strategy that increases your buying power. To take make sale and promotional prices save you the most money, you need to load up on those goods when they are at their rock-bottom price, so that you don’t have to buy them when they’re more expensive. Here’s the strategy:
Inventory your pantry.
What pantry items do you know you’ll use? Pantry items include frozen foods, shelf-stable foods, and household and hygiene items such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, toilet paper, and paper towels. Anything that you can make last from one sale cycle to the next is a pantry item. Foods that spoil quickly and can’t (reasonably) be preserved are non-pantry items, such as fresh milk and non-freezable fruits and vegetables. It’s important to know what you will use on a regular basis. Buying twenty bags of brown rice because it’s on sale at a crazy-low price won’t do you any good if your family won’t eat brown it rice. It will just go to waste in your pantry while you spend on the things you do eat!
Buy in bulk when a pantry item is on sale, enough to last until the next sale cycle (typically 6-8 weeks).
This can really take a leap of faith, at least, it did for me. In the beginning you may have to make sacrifices in the way you eat so that you can allot more money toward bulk purchases. Over time, the more items you are able to buy at rock-bottom price, the more groceries you will be able to buy within your budget. The goal is to increase your buying power—to buy more groceries with the same amount of money.
For example, let’s assume that I typically use 8 boxes of pasta each month. If I normally buy a couple boxes each week at the regular price of $1.25 each, I will spend about $20 on pasta over the course of 2 months (or 8 weeks). If instead I buy two months supply of pasta when it’s featured as a loss leader at only $0.69, I will spend only $11.04 on pasta over that 8 weeks. That leaves the other $8.96 that I normally spend on pasta, to spend elsewhere (or to buy almost double the amount of pasta). If I notice that my store is having a case lot sale and selling canned beans for only $0.50 each (a case of 12 for $6, for instance) and I buy them knowing this will last me 6 weeks, then I will spend only $6 for a 6 week supply of beans rather than $12 for the same amount of beans at the usual price of $1 per can. And I still have almost $3 left from my savings on bulk pasta to direct elsewhere without exceeding what I would normally spend on pasta in two months.
Start as Small as Necessary
When you plan your budget, estimate what you will have to spend on groceries just to survive for the month, the minimum you need to spend on essentials this month or week. Can you make any sacrifices in your food budget and spend that money on stocking up instead when you see items you know you’ll use come on sale? Perhaps instead of buying the monthly tub of ice cream, you could spend that $4 on a frew extra bags of frozen veggies that are on sale. Perhaps you could replace the meat in a couple meals each week with a cheaper protein like beans or eggs. Then put the money you would have spent on that meat toward an on-sale pantry item that you know you will use when you see it at a really low price at the store.
Even if you can only find $5 to spend on a bulk purchase, your buying power will gradually increase. Let’s say I spend that $5 to buy 5 extra bags of frozen veggies on sale at $0.90 each and an extra can of on-sale corn at $0.50. The regular price is $1.20 each for the frozen veggies and $0.69 for the corn. This means that next month I won’t have to budget for any frozen veggies at their non-sale price, and one less can of corn, leaving me with $6.69 to spend on a different sale item. Because I have a bit more food than I immediately need, I have the flexibility to wait until the next sale to re-stock. In this way, your money to spend on sale items will gradually increase even if you start small!
If you’re wondering how you can track all those budget categories and rollover each month, check out this post.
There are some foods that you can’t buy in bulk, like fresh milk and eggs. Have alternative forms of these foods in your pantry. Dry milk and canned milk are good alternatives for cooking and baking (or drinking, if you don’t mind the taste). Eggs can be purchased in powdered form or frozen. Potatoes don’t last long in warm humid climates, but you can stock them in flaked or powdered form. While you wouldn’t throw them on a salad, canned tomatoes are packed with nutrition for soups, chilies, sauces and salsas. If you need a fresh fruit that isn’t on sale, consider using the frozen, canned, or dried version. Adjust your meal plan and even your recipes based on what’s in your pantry and on-sale.
Eat from your pantry first.
Base your meal plans around those low-price pantry items you stocked up on. Augment those items with on-sale fresh goods from the store. We’ll talk more about meal-planning later.
Know shelf-life and storage, and learn how to preserve fresh foods.
Many foods can be frozen without much effort, particularly meat, cheese, butter, and fresh fruit and veggies. You can even make extras of some dishes to freeze for a ready-made meal on a busy day. Most veggies can also be frozen after blanching. Many fruits can be dried as well for extended shelf-life.
Know how to keep foods fresh in the fridge or pantry, and whether your food needs dry conditions or an airtight container in the fridge. Recognize which expiration dates are significant for safety reasons, like those for fresh meat, and which are guidelines for taste, like those on most canned or boxed goods. For instance, eggs typically stay fresh for a couple weeks past the date on the carton. Hint: The internet is a great place to learn how to keep food properly and to know how long it lasts. But try to use more reputable sources like university extensions, food producers, and the USDA for best accuracy.
Security and Stability
There are more benefits to building up a solid pantry than a more powerful grocery budget. If you have more food than you need for a few days or a week, you’ll make fewer “emergency” trips to the grocery store. (And fewer visits to the store almost always means less money spent.) This saves you time, energy, and stress. If you’re sick, you can rest easy knowing you can survive at home for a while. If grocery stores become inaccessible for a time (this does happen during natural disasters or other major economic disturbance), you’ll still eat. You’ll also be in a better position to help your friends and family. Food storage is also insurance against financial hardship. Stocking up while you can afford food will lessen the stress should financial crisis occur.
What strategies do you use to build a dependable supply of food? How has stocking up stretched your budget or given you relief?
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