Last January I asked my spouse, Rom, if he would take over grocery shopping for the year. He was up for the challenge. He kept the same budget we had in 2014 which was $500 a month for groceries, snacks, cleaning products, paper goods and personal care items.
My shopping style up to last December 31 was quite labour-intensive. I plotted the dinners we would make on a monthly calendar. Then I made a grocery list. I checked the flyers every week and made note of sale items. Rom and I shopped together once a week at our main supermarket. Whenever the deals warranted, I made a round of three extra stores to pick up specials. I used reward points and coupons. I did a monthly stock-up at Costco. I felt I was getting the best prices, without changing our diet. But it was very time-consuming.
Accommodating our preferred diet is key. I know the cheapest way to eat is to build meals around whatever is in season and on sale each week. But as mostly-vegetarians in the Great White North, our only local produce is root vegetables in the winter, and we limit packaged foods as much as possible. So we do splurge on fresh fruit and vegetables all the time, as well as pricey nuts, dried fruit, quinoa, olive oil and so on. On the thrifty side, we eat a lot of beans, chick peas, lentils, brown rice and oatmeal, which are very cheap.
Rom likes to shop, just to browse, on the weekends. (Me, less so). So he decided to make a grocery list every Saturday morning and do his shopping then. His planning process was to look at the coming week only. We’d both decide what we wanted to make for main meals and would list the ingredients we needed, then each of us would list what we wanted for our breakfasts and brown bag lunches. For a few months, Rom would shop on his own at 7 a.m. It wasn’t long before I trusted him to stick to his lists and not overspend. In fact, I also knew there would be no treats or pleasant surprises! After Target left town, Rom stopped going out so early, and we would shop together around 9 or 10 a.m. at his choice, Wal-Mart.
Our local Wal-Mart has only had a full grocery section for just over a year. (Before that, they just had a few aisles of packaged foods). They have a reasonable selection of the basics, but not as much variety as a traditional supermarket. Their strategy seems to be: research which items people are very price-sensitive about, and always have the lowest price on those items. Although they have a weekly grocery flyer, they seem to reduce the price on certain products for long periods of time and call it a “markdown” or a “rollback” rather than having a lot of short-term specials for just a few days.
Now one thing I have learned about Rom is that he is not a foodie. In fact, he doesn’t seek variety and will eat the same foods at the same time of day for weeks on end. So for him, having a selection of cheap and basic brands is just fine. When he makes dinner, his favourite is a hearty soup/stew made with pasta, barley, mushrooms and beans. So I made a point of participating in meal planning and accompanying him shopping so we wouldn’t fall into too deep a rut! We cook big batches about twice a week, and often eat the same thing 2 or 3 days in a row. So there was no way I would make the same two meals every week! I would make sure that the meals cycled through maybe every 4 to 6 weeks. Yes, I intervened quite a bit.
Another change is our work schedules. Rom works downtown, about 10 km from our suburb. To avoid traffic and parking hassles, he buses to and from work, which adds 3 hours a day to his work day. Yes, we desperately need rapid transit. Meanwhile, I can walk to work in 15 minutes. So I have 2.5 hours a day more time at home than he does. Accordingly, Rom will often cook something on Sunday nights for the early part of the week, and make our weekend lunches, while I cook most dinners. I actually enjoy doing food prep when I come home from work, and take my time over cooking. This division of cooking duties affects our shopping a lot, too. If Rom makes something for Monday and Tuesday, I need to buy stuff on Saturday that will stay fresh until it’s my turn to cook on Wednesday!
Kudos to Rom. He has stuck with it all year, stayed on budget, and enjoys shopping. I know I don’t have to be part of the process. That in itself is an accomplishment. My favourite change this year is that Rom can inventory what we have, assess what we need to turn it into meals, and make it happen!
^spreadsheet of monthly data^
At first glance, I thought he had saved $515 over my 2014 total, a full month’s worth of grocery expenses. On closer examination, though, I paid $496 out of my own pocket for grocery items that he didn’t find at Wal-Mart. Net savings: $19!
Starting next month, a new strategy is in the works. We have just obtained a credit card which gives 4% cash back on grocery purchases, but only if purchased from a supermarket (apparently not Wal-Mart or Costco). I have just revived my price book, last updated 3 years ago, in which I note the regular prices and best sale prices for all the grocery items we usually buy. If Wal-Mart’s prices are more than 4% lower, and Rom still wants to go there, it may make financial sense. But I will start checking flyers and doing stock-ups again at the supermarket, when their prices are best, to take advantage of the cash back. The card also pays 1% on everything else (non-supermarket). There is also the option to buy gift cards for other stores from the supermarket, and use them to pay for merchandise, thereby getting the cash back reward. I have no concerns about running up a credit card bill – we don’t carry a balance. I’m interested to see how it goes!
Despite all my scrounging, I acknowledge that price isn’t everything. I actually miss our neighbourhood grocery store, despite its irrational prices. I had shopped there for over 10 years. I like to support local stores, farmers and products; I like variety; and I like treats: whether they are a loaf of peasant bread from a bakery or a bar of lemongrass soap from the farmer’s market or, you know, a bar of Cadbury Banana Caramel Crisp 🙂
In a future post I will write about what foods our 2015 grocery budget actually purchased, and whether we had a good year nutrition-wise! (and I’ll show what prices are like for typical grocery items here).
How was your year for groceries?
Thanks for sharing. It is great to hear how it all went.
I do all of our meal planning, grocery shopping, budgeting and, since we moved, most of the cooking. I do struggle to stay within the budget I’ve set. I love good food and am terribly tempted. Evidence in point, I just came back from buying glucose syrup and somehow also ended up with about 2kg of premium cherries (haven’t seen any this good all season so far) and two apricots (bought a kilo yesterday, but my two boys had eaten them all already! These two are especially for me!)
Are you able to share how you organise your price book? I tried to start one a year or two ago, but probably wasn’t very diligent. I tried to get my husband to build a price comparison app, but he didn’t get time to. I think I will need to see what is on offer at the Play Store.
Mmm, summer cherries – I would have bought them, too! Since I am starting over with my price book, I may choose a different method. I am not sure that there is an app organized the way I would like. Let me know if you find one you like! I will post about it – thanks for asking!
Interesting as of the 24th of Dec. .i am handing over shopping to the man. I wonder if i will get similar results
Cool. I would love to hear about the differences in your shopping methods – stay in touch 🙂
Kudos to Rom for his diligence in sticking to budget! And I think it’s really admirable that as a couple, you have managed to achieve such an equitable split of this area of household management. I’d also love to see the price book and thanks also for sharing your experiences and how it’s all gone. I’m also amazed at your diligence as a household in tracking expenses so thoroughly.
Our year in groceries went right off track in about September-October, when we started buying *lots* more takeaway, snap meals etc. We haven’t been so bad in years. But it was the peak busy period for me with end-of-year reporting and I had my excuses!
No matter how we shop, the one thing I am most pleased about is the amount of cooking from scratch we do. We get cravings for restaurant meals at times, but have settled into a home cooking routine the vast majority of the time. (Note: I was nowhere near this evolved when my kid was 11!) Rom would have done even better budget-wise if it weren’t for me tagging along 🙂
A side note, but I was shocked at the 10km = 1.5 hrs on public transport! That is very dedicated of Rom to stick with it!
I agree. If I were in his shoes I would take the car to save time, and pay the parking. Rom would rather take the bus and listen to podcasts!
ROM: It also gives me time to plan subversive grocery buying shenanigans 😉
That’s really interesting, thank you. I will be tracking our grocery spending more closely next year so I have some food for thought.
I wish you all the best. Tracking is the first step in saving! It helped me a lot to track food (meal items), snacks, cleaning supplies and personal care items separately. Sometimes we’d have a big bill and I would think we spend so much money on food, when really the biggest costs that day might have been cat food, bird seed, or toilet paper!
This is so interesting but I would love to have heard Ron’s side of the story too. Did you really not trust him to stick to the budget? It sounds like he could handle an even lower budget if left alone (but then, no, you would get no – what was it? – lemon grass soup from the farmers market?)
After we banned the supermarket across the street, food costs have come down (and the number of food receipts has halved for a month). We now go to a low-price supermarket for basics with a long shopping list covering a week or two, with probably two weekly runs to our local veggie-shop. I think it is the shopping list primarily that keeps the costs down. What you have, you will eat…
I asked Rom if he would have told the story differently and he said no. When we shopped together last year, he was always adding treats for himself to the shopping cart. So I did think he would “cheat” with the budget at first. But when he took over, he stopped adding his treats and got much more frugal. We mostly shop only once a week and stick to the list. Last year, I would buy my own personal care products such as moisturizers and conditioner out of the grocery budget. This year I have mostly bought them on my own, and that makes up some of the $496 I spent out of pocket. Likewise, the grocery budget used to cover more expensive coffee, which I now feel guilty about buying under Rom’s regime! So both of us have been trying to save more.
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We split our shopping with a cheaper store for boxed goods and a nicer store for produce and meats. I still don’t trust the cheaper store with meats after the famous ABC news story. Plus, we are voracious leftover eaters now that the kids are at college. Have a great holiday, Keith
I won’t look up the ABC story since we’re not meat-eaters, but who knows – maybe there is a produce story, too! We are also ace at snapping up leftovers, but we try to make meals that last 2-3 nights (not more unless it can be frozen) so we don’t get tired of anything. Speaking for myself, of course, because Rom would be fine with more repetition!
My husband would not ever be interested in taking over the grocery shopping, I don’t think. He will do almost anything to avoid shopping or running errands. I don’t mind doing them, but I do sometimes have to remind him of the actual time they take! It’s easy to take for granted the food that just shows up, when you aren’t really involved in it’s procurement at all.
I started my year so well but got off track mid-way through, both with tracking our expenses and also with not eating out as much. So our grocery bill never got too out of hand, but we were spending quite a bit on food prepared away from home (and that comes out of another pot of money). The last month or so I’ve recommitted to sticking to our budget and also working hard to eat BY FAR the majority of our meals at home. I did increase our budget a bit because while I am willing to travel to different stores for good deals, I am also fairly picky about the meat and seafood I buy and am more comfortable paying a little more for (what I think is) better quality meats/seafood than just searching out the lowest price.
Anyway, kudos to both of you for sticking to it this year!!
Thanks! I like to travel around a bit to get better and local fruit and veg. When I did the rounds of 3 or 4 stores, Rom and I still went grocery shopping together weekly at our main store. So I think he believed my trips were just “add-ons,” when in fact they were a substantial part of our shopping (and three times the effort for me). It was interesting that he could average the same prices I did over the course of a year, but it came down to how much variety we thought was important.
I go by the adage “the most expensive food you buy is the food you throw out” so I try to use up all of the perishables. We eat a lot of “composed” salads and soups.
I don’t budget, but I watch my spending, and I know I splurge on fresh fish (sustainable), good cheese, and fresh bread. To balance, we eat a lot of dried beans, grains, and root vegetables (I love roasted winter squash). I do all of the cooking and shopping – whenever Donna buys anything she is horrified by what it costs (because she hasn’t food shopped regularly in the 25 years we’ve lived together).
Definitely a division of labour, then! Over time we have pretty much eliminated food waste. It took a while to master that. For me, the key change was not to stock the fridge and freezer with the same items every week just because we had run out. That works fine if you don’t know what you are going to have for dinner any given night – you can just peek in and use your staples to make something. But if you meal plan, then you only need to buy ingredients for those meals, and anything over and above that would just go to waste (i.e. don’t “always” buy green onions if no recipe this week specifically calls for them). As you know.
Wow. 4% cashback on groceries? That’s insane. Is there an annual fee? I have one that’s just 1% cashback – no annual fee – but I’m always looking for a better card. I haven’t analyzed my spending for 2015 yet. I’ll start the analysis after December 31st as I need to reconcile… But be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the post! 😀
Hi AP, yes, there is a steep annual fee ($99) but I think it will pay for itself several times over. Of course I will be tracking if that is the case. I look forward to your year-end spending round-up!
Oh, I meat to mention for your Australian readers that I use a card that gives me 5% back on all purchases under $100 where I use Paypass/Paywave. I have two cards eligible for 5% off and one that gives 2%. On all purchases, not just food. So when I go through the checkout I ask them to split my bill between the three cards to maximise the cash back.
I think the 5% offer is good for 6 months, but the 2% off is ongoing. There are some good offers out there.
Excellent post. My one goal next year is to be more frugal. I am a little concerned about my ability to keep track of everything but I intend to give it my best shot. I am lucky enough to live in a place where I could eat clean and healthy on less than $20 a week groceries yet I somehow end up over spending on eating out and ordering in. Thanks for keep me hopeful.
Merry Christmas 🙂
$20 a week!! We spent $82/week for 2 of us for just grocery items, not including snacks, cafes and restaurant meals. Would love to hear how you do.
oh I live in a lovely little country where fresh produce is really affordable. My hope is to put it to good use. 🙂 Happy new year!!
Dar, I love Rom’s ‘subversive grocery buying shenanigans’. Makes me want to be a fly on the wall at the grocery store.. How wonderful that you manage to be such a team with regards to food:)
I need to do more planning with my grocery buying, and I am getting more and more uneasy about where the supermarket food comes from, and who is being exploited/underpaid in that particular food chain. For this coming year I want to shop more locally and find alternative sources for the food we eat. I expect this will be less convenient, but more adventurous..
Hi Jo, This is something I am also concerned about. I did a post on it a while back: https://anexactinglife.com/2012/11/06/local-food-spot-check/
I don’t know if I have improved much since then. I always check the store labels for the country of origin for fresh and frozen fruit and veg and dairy products, and buy Canadian or east coast when I am able to do so. But there is such a vast number of foods that can’t be grown in Canada at all (or would require year-round green houses). I suppose ultimately I do my best and try to reduce my food waste to zero, and minimize the buying of food packaging.
Our year was up and down. I am like Ron and would eat the same thing all the time but Luke is so troublesome to cook for that it makes it more difficult. I have just bought a book just for meal planning though so we will see if I can do a better job this year!
Troublesome! Do you mean limited or particular or…I wonder if Rom thinks I am troublesome to cook for because I ask for a lot more variety in meals than he would normally do?
That’s great that the grocery trade off went so well. While I tracked all my expenses I neglected to make any adjustments when I went off course. 😦 Next year I will definitely keep my eye on it.
I am like that, too, Sunny – just because I spot a trend, doesn’t mean I will act on it!
I’m really hoping I nip this in the bud in 2016 as my food spending was out of control.
You are good at meal planning so I am sure you’ll do well!
Thanks for your vote of confidence. It’s far too easy to take you eye off the prize.
I spat the dummy recently and said with three other adults in the house I shouldn’t be the only one grocery shopping. Problem is if I leave it to Mr S he over buys and we end up with a lot of wastage. Bad for our wallets and bad for the environment. I hate adding to landfill and wasting all the resources that go into producing food.
My offspring do a less than ordinary effort so I won’t even count their couple of shopping trips.
I have meant to make a shopping price book for years to compare prices and buy staples when on special but figure I buy what we need to eat and I have enough stressors in my life, that saving money on food will have to wait. I save heaps by menu planning and fortnightly shopping as it is (except if Mr S does the shop.)