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?