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Mission Impossible:  Grocery Store Savings

29 July 2023

I’ve been amazed (well, maybe more like horrified) at the cost of food at the grocery store lately.  Even with clipping coupons, watching for sales, and avoiding the impulse buys in the check-out line, I can’t seem to get out of the grocery store for less than $40 these days…no matter what I came in for!  Normally, I am all about paying for high quality, healthy food, but a recent particularly wallet damaging trip to Natural Grocers made me reassess my purchases.  So, after sitting down and doing some number crunching and evaluation of our family’s habits and wastes, I decided to let you all in on my findings on how and where you might be able to save at the grocery store.

First, go in with a plan.  This is probably at the top of the list on every savings hack’s website, but it’s for a reason.  The times I have spent the most are when I didn’t plan what/when we were going to be eating at home that week.  It starts with good intentions – “I’ll just pick up some veggies for the grill, some fruit for after dinner, some protein if we decide to grill…” and suddenly we have a fridge full of miscellaneous items that may or may not all get eaten before they spoil.  When I walk in with a clear idea of what I want and how much and what meal it will be used for, almost nothing goes to waste.  The average American household throws out 25% of its food purchases and a family of four will throw out more than $1600 of food each year.  This is a serious amount of cash that could (and should) be spent on things like family vacations, braces for little Jimmy, sports equipment, or really anything better than making more garbage.  So, next time you’re heading to the grocery store, go prepared with a list!

Second, consider the cost of prepared food.  I’m a decent cook (meaning I can follow a recipe) and make almost all of our meals at home.  However, I will admit to taking shortcuts on occasion and recently those short cuts have been adding up.  For example, to buy a small jar of organic pesto at Albertsons, it costs $6.99.  I did an experiment this weekend and for a grand total of $0, I made the same pesto from the basil in my planter and supplies I had at home.  It took a total of 8 1/2 minutes for me to collect the supplies, throw it in a blender and have pesto.  Yes, I actually timed myself.  The dishwasher did the dishes and I froze the leftover pesto.  There are so many items like this that I’m tempted to buy out of convenience, but really take almost no time or money to make.  Big mark ups on items like vegetable or chicken broth, bread (especially with a bread maker), pizza dough, salad dressing, pasta or pizza sauce, salsa or guacamole, and many more don’t need to inflate my grocery bill.  Often, my homemade version tastes better and is almost definitely healthier without the excess preservatives, salt, and calories.  So, consider what you might want to make yourself.  Even if it’s one item, it might save you $50-100 over the course of a year depending on the markup. 

Third, watch where you buy things.  Very soon after moving to Billings many years ago, I realized that the grocery store was NOT the place to buy fruit.  WAYYY overpriced, often spoiling, and many times not organic, the grocery store fruit looked sad and almost nothing like what I was used to in Arizona.  Then, I found Costco.  Costco offered great prices on delicious berries, melons, and bananas.  They have lots of options that change depending on the season and many of their fruits are even organic.  At the time, they slashed my grocery budget the produce department by at least half.  In the last year, Misfits Market has become my go to option in the winter months.  They are an online grocery store that sources produce and other goods from around the country that will be thrown out due to either being unusual looking (think of a carrot shaped like a C or a melon with a big divot in it) or coming close to their expiration date.  In the dead of winter here in Billings, you can get a ripe melon, a delicious mango or ready to eat cherry tomatoes delivered right to your door.  The best part is that the prices are extremely reasonable.  You do pay a $10 shipping fee, but that is more than made up for by the steep discounts on much of the produce.  So, consider a quick side trip to a different market for items with big savings the next time you’re out grocery shopping.

Fourth, save everything!! My husband laughs at me because our freezer is filled with miscellaneous odds and ends – baggies filled with herbs, the remains of a can of chilis in adobo sauce, half a portion of an enchilada casserole, two icecube’s worth of pesto, part of a jar of marinara sauce, an extra block of cheddar cheese…you get the picture.  I’ve realized over the years that the freezer is my salvation.  It can hold a treasure chest’s worth of overzealous purchases or leftover bits of things that I can use for later.  That marinara sauce may come in handy when it’s just me home alone one night for an easy pasta dinner.  The block of cheese will thaw and melt just fine to put into bean enchiladas.  Those cubes of pesto can be thawed and go into an omelet one weekend.  It also works on large grocery store purchases, either from disorganization (see paragraph 1) or planned.  Good deal on broccoli today?..maybe I’ll buy two heads and cut up and freeze the second to add to a stirfry one night.  The lesson here is that we often throw out odds and ends just to buy them again later.  Think about whether something can be used again and if so, toss it in a Tupperware and throw it in the freezer.  Many times we will have a portion of a meal leftover that we throw into the freezer.  At some point, we have one of those days where nothing has been planned for dinner and we end up having a leftover night made up of 5-6 different dishes.  It’s not glamorous and often it’s not even cohesive (a side of soup with your enchilada casserole anyone?) but it gets the job done and usually turns out pretty well anyway.

While I could go on and on about ways to save at the grocery store, I will leave you with one more tip.  Consider shopping your own pantry.  Pretty much any day of the week I have enough food in our pantry to make a very lovely meal at home without having to go to the grocery store.  In fact, I would bet many families do.  Too often we forget what we have at home and it may expire or sit in the pantry without being used for months.  Before making your list, check out what you have in the cupboards and making a meal or two from your supplies.  You might be shocked at how much that can save you in the check-out line.  While you’re at it, you might want to check your freezer as well ?