The All You grocery challenge ended this past weekend. As you probably remember, the challenge for contestants was to spend just $25 per family member per week on groceries for a total of four weeks. The winner will be given a $1000 grocery gift card. Since we’re a family of three, we had just $75 per week to spend over the past four weeks (you can read about our experiences with weeks one through three here, here, and here). This past week, the fourth week, we spent $73.93.
The next step for the contest is to fill out their “exit form” and submit it for my chance to win the grocery gift card. The exit form actually asks some interesting questions, so I thought I’d share with you my answers (some of which I’ve expanded further for this post). Even if you don’t wish to subject yourself or your family to a strict weekly food budget, maybe you’ll find some of what I’ve learned over the past four weeks useful for your shopping. So here are the All You exit form questions along with my answers:
Question 1: How much money did you spend each week?
Week 1: $71.58
Week 2: $71.71
Week 3: $73.89
Week 4: $73.93
Question 2: What creative strategies did you use to save money?
1) I shopped at different grocery stores based on what was on sale at each. I regularly check this site called Madame Deals where, from the home page, you can click on the icon of your favorite grocery store and/or drugstore and they will show you all of the items on sale at that store for that week (there are lots of other websites like this if Madame Deals doesn’t follow the sales of a grocery chain near you). They even tell you when a sale item can be combined with a coupon either from a recent newspaper insert or from an online source (and they provide a corresponding link to the online source). Last week I checked out Madame Deals for Kroger sales. Kroger is a grocery store in my area but I don’t normally shop there (another chain, Harris Teeter, is more conveniently located for me). I thought it might be worthwhile just to see what Kroger had on sale. Well, Kroger was having a fantastic sale on a bunch of items we normally buy so I made a shopping list based on their sale items, gathered my corresponding coupons, and went over to Kroger and instantly joined their frequent buyer program. I saved a ton of money on groceries during that trip (my receipt said I saved a total of 55% off the regular, retail price). In addition to checking weekly sales at large chain grocery stores, I also subscribed to an email newsletter from our local co-op. Each week they send me a list of their sale items. They also recently sent me an invitation to take a 15 minute online survey for which they gave me a coupon for 10% off my entire purchase of items at their store.
2) I shopped for some groceries at drugstores. Buy watching for sale items at drugstores, I discovered that I could sometimes get food items there for less money than what I’d pay at the grocery store — snack items and cereal are often less expensive at the drugstore, especially if I use the drugstore’s rewards program combined with manufacturers’ coupons. I also used CVS ExtraCare Bucks and Walgreens Register Rewards that I earned through toiletry purchases to buy groceries for very little money.
3) As much as possible, I prepared dishes based on items we had on hand, making substitutions in recipes when necessary. Allrecipes.com has a great tool at the top of their home page that allows you to search for recipes based on ingredients you already have (it even lets you input ingredients you DON’T want included in the recipe search). Allyou.com (the sponsors of this grocery contest) have a convenient list of recipe ingredient substitutions. For example, if you’re out of half-and-half, they tell you how to use milk plus unsalted butter instead.
4) I used a lot of manufacturers’ coupons and tried to maximize my coupon savings by combining coupons with store sales as well as using coupons at the grocery stores that offer to double the face value of each coupon.
5) I made some dishes in bulk so that I could bring them to work for lunch during the week. The first two weeks of the contest I made huge pots of soup and the second two weeks of the contest I made hummus using an inexpensive package of dried garbanzo beans.
6) I froze some leftovers instead of putting them in the refrigerator. Freezing leftovers means that when I don’t feel like cooking and there isn’t much to eat in the fridge, I have a meal ready to go in the freezer. Freezing leftovers also means that I don’t have to have the same meal more than one day in a row – I can space out when I eat the meals so as not to grow tired of them.
Question 3: What healthy strategies did you use?
1) I gave a lot of consideration to when it was worth the extra money to buy organic foods versus when I could save money by not purchasing organic. When we started this contest, my friend Trish asked if having a limited food budget meant, for example, “no organic milk.” Well, the answer is sort of. Using organic milk as an example, I bought organic milk the weeks it was on sale and didn’t the weeks it wasn’t. The sale price of organic milk was still always more than the regular price of non-organic milk. However, spending a little bit more on organic milk (on sale) was worth it to me, especially when I knew I could save money on other food items that didn’t matter as much to me whether they were organic (like cereal).
2) We ate less meat than usual and more vegetables, beans, and whole grains. This was a natural switch since we had pre-paid for our CSA vegetables and we had 11 pounds of whole wheat fusilli pasta on hand before the contest began.
3) A hard-boiled egg (or two) made for an inexpensive, protein-rich snack at work.
4) Water substituted for a lot of other beverages.
Question 4: What did you learn from this challenge?
1) We can eat for $75 a week which is quite a bit less than what I had become accustomed to spending at the grocery store.
2) Having a well-stocked pantry is essential to staying within a weekly food budget. When we ran out of common pantry items and had little money left in the weekly food budget, it felt disheartening.
3) The occasional splurge on a really coveted food item makes it a lot easier, psychologically, to eat inexpensively at other times (it’s sort of like dieting in that way).
4) In order to be really successful at staying within a food budget all members of the family have to be supportive of the budget. (Uh, have I thanked you for the past four weeks yet, Mark?)
5) For us, it makes more sense to make several smaller trips to the grocery store during the week than to do one large shopping trip per week. When we try to do one big shop, we tend to overestimate how much food we’ll need for the week. If we make smaller trips every 2-3 days, we only buy what we know we will want to eat over the next couple of days.
6) In order to take full advantage of sales, it may be easier for us to keep a monthly food budget rather than a weekly food budget. Having a weekly budget isn’t as conducive to “stockpiling” items as is a monthly budget. So, for example, if cheese is heavily on sale at the grocery store, on a monthly food budget I’d be inclined to use the sale to my advantage by buying enough cheese to get us through the month (or until cheese is on sale again). On a weekly budget however, I may not have enough money to buy several packages of cheese and still buy the other groceries I need for the week. This realization about implementing a monthly budget rather than a weekly one is probably the most useful thing I learned by doing this contest.
7) I don’t think I’ll put this one on my All You exit form, but something else I learned by participating in this contest is that sometimes it’s better for family harmony to ignore the budget. I’d like to say that Mark and I just sailed right through the four weeks of this contest. We didn’t. By having a firm $75 weekly limit on our spending, we felt at times like we were really constrained. We had some tense moments regarding decisions about food purchases and, frankly, it’s pretty toxic to a relationship to argue about how to spend a few dollars.
So that’s it. Do you have any good tips to pass along to keep grocery bills in check? Are any of you inclined to try spending just $25 per week per person on groceries? Do tell.