Food for Thought – 5 ways to cut your grocery bill

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A couple of weeks ago, during my weekly Meijer visit, I'd just finished loading up the bags when I turned back to the screen and saw the total staring at me: $236.17. Wait: Didn't I just spend that exact amount less than a week ago? I didn't even buy any wine this week! Suddenly, those cinnamon sugar pita chips in my cart didn't look as tempting as they did in aisle 11. Ugh.

With a husband, three active boys, and the overall rising cost of food, I don't expect our grocery bills will be cheap. I really do try to be somewhat cost-conscious by buying what's on sale, actually remembering to use the coupon I clipped, and advance meal planning. But lately, it just seems to be getting more and more expensive.

I was so shocked by my bill that I took a photo and posted it on Facebook, in hopes that my super-smart friends would chime in with some super-smart ideas for me. No such luck. Turns out there are a lot of you out there—other than the person who suggested foraging—who also feel the pain in the checkout lane. My shock still hadn't worn off by Monday and became the topic of conversation at work. A co-worker shared that Laura Compton, his stay-at-home wife and mother of five girls, maintains a $600 a month budget. "Really?" I asked. "I must speak to this superwoman!" I also reached out to Shannon Rodgers of Grand Rapids following a tip from a friend. Laura and Shannon have similar family sizes and budgets, but quite different approaches to taming the money-sucking monster that's the grocery budget.

Tip #1: First things first: You gotta have a budget.
We've all heard about the importance of budgeting, but face it: It's easier said than done. It can feel overwhelming and tedious, and it's easy to let our urges and cravings get the best of us. To determine your budget, start tracking what you're currently spending for a few weeks. Then give yourself a goal to cut that back, even if just a bit at first. Laura's best advice to make it simple is to use cash. If you are truly committed, it forces you to stay in line—because once the money is gone, it's gone.

Tip #2: Plan ahead.
Every two weeks, Laura sits down, reviews the family calendar, and plans a meal for each night for the upcoming two weeks. On busy days, she'll schedule a quick go-to meal or something to throw in the crockpot. She also includes an easy backup option, such as frozen chicken patty sandwiches, for unforeseen "emergencies." This prevents her from taking the easy route by ordering a pizza or eating out.

Tip #3: To coupon or not to coupon? Your call.
I was a bit surprised to learn Laura doesn't use many coupons or even store savings programs. She tried them for a while, but found her time was better spent with the planning part—and she just wasn't saving enough to make it worth it. Shannon, on the other hand, is all about not paying full price. For anything. Each week she gets the Sunday paper and goes to work. For up to two hours, she studies the sales and clips coupons. She also hops online and checks out the MPerks, Meijer's virtual coupon clipping service, and savingaddiction.com, a blog run by two Hudsonville women who even offer classes that promise to teach you their tricks of the trade! Shannon's primary goal is to combine in-store specials with coupons, and stock up when she finds a good deal.

Tip #4: Go where the savings are.
Laura basically shops at three stores: Meijer, Sam's Club, and Aldi. Because she's on a tight budget, she's tracked where the greatest savings are. She'll buy most of her meat at Sam's, snacks and baking goods at Aldi, and everything else at Meijer. I recently forfeited my membership to Sam's as I found it too tempting and impossible to walk out the door without new patio furniture or a twenty-pack of scotch tape. But if you can remain disciplined and have compared the prices enough to know where the savings are, go for it. I've heard a lot about Aldi lately, so decided to check it out. Snacks and cereal were definitely deals, as was the wine. Their Winking Owl brand is $2.89 and not so bad. Aldi was clean, with friendly and informative staff. I also met a young, urban-looking couple when checking out who said they shop at Aldi for the produce and healthier foods. I made a mental note to check that area more closely next time.

Tip #5: Buy less of what you don't really need.
Laura's athletic girls have hearty appetites. And while they need protein, meat is expensive. So, she dishes up smaller amounts of meat and fills the rest of their plates with less-expensive carbs, such as potatoes and rice. Instead of drinking juice or pop, the girls mostly drink water, which is healthier. Convenience foods such as pre-packaged snacks may save time, but they won't save money. Consider buying in bulk and repackaging items into individual portions.

When I set out to write this article, my hope was that I'd uncover secret tricks and insider tips to magically cut down my expenses, and yours. While I got some new ideas—and much-needed motivation—the bottom line is: If you want to see significant changes you must invest the time and effort, no different from losing weight, training for a race, or any other goal. As a full-time working mom, I know I need to be realistic in my approach. But I'm definitely going to take bits and pieces of this advice, in hopes that I can save some money.

How about you? Do you have any great ideas to share with your fellow West Michigan women?

Written by: Jill Carroll, West Michigan Woman marketing director, still secretly hopes for some grocery-buying magic.

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