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My wife and I spend around $450 per month on groceries for our family of five including our three kids, ages 6, 8, and 10. This comes out to $1.02 per meal per person if you consider 3 meals per day for 5 people, less the 10 or so meals I buy at work each month:
30 days per month x 3 meals per day x 5 people = 450 meals
$450 per month / (450 – 10 meals per month) = $1.02 per meal
According to USDA, average meal costs for my family ranges from $790 – $1,572. This equates to $1.75 – $350 per meal. On the whole, we’re about 42% better than the average.
Your average cost per meal may be more, it may be less. What’s important in this whole conversation is that you are intentional about your spending and that you arrive at a level that matches your value system and that does not feel like deprivation.
Regardless of where you are with your grocery budget, the below tips will radically improve your household expenses:
1. Less trips to the grocery store
Lets face it, it is hard to walk out of the grocery store for less than $50. You might go to the store to pick up a specific item, but invariably you walk out with a few additional items that you realized you “needed.” Right? Remembering that thing that you needed is not serendipity, it’s because the successful grocery chains have figured out how to optimize sales through product placement. There is a reason the staples (milk, butter, eggs, etc..) are in the back of the store. It is so you walk past the many aisles of product on the way in and on the way out.
You can combat the temptation to grab more things than you need by simply limiting trips to the store. My wife and I have actually taken this to somewhat of an extreme. We only shop once a month. In addition, we rarely go in to the actual store as we purchase our groceries online using Walmart Grocery. Using this service, you can can arrange a curbside pickup time that is convenient to you. The grocers will pack the food in your trunk for you and they don’t accept tips!
You might be wondering how we manage to do keep our produce fresh for the month. One example, is buying cabbage instead of lettuce because it keeps for +4 weeks and has better nutritional value. For bananas, we found that you can wrap the ends to extend the life by a week or so. Onions, potatoes, bell peppers, etc.. all keep just fine for several weeks. The only vegetable we found that doesn’t keep for the full four weeks is tomatoes. We usually just go without tomatoes the last week.
Take Action: Sign up for Walmart Grocery to start shopping online. Try reducing the number of times you go into the grocery store as each time you run the risk of picking up incidentals that were not part of your plan.
2. Fill your freezer
The natural side effect of fewer trips to the grocery store is buying in larger quantities. To make this work, you will need a system to preserve your fresh produce, fruit, and dairy.
My family, for instance, drinks five gallons of milk each month. To avoid our milk going spoiled, we separate four of the five gallons into half gallon pitchers and put them in the freezer. Similarly, we separate our lunch meat into zip-locks and freeze everything we do not need for the week.
You can freeze bread, cheese, tortillas, and many other things and then selectively pull them out when you need them. As an example, when we need a new loaf of bread we pull one out of the freezer onto the counter. After it thaws, you cant tell the difference between it and a fresh loaf. Who knew right?
Take Action: Get a few half gallon pitchers to split and freeze your milk. This brand has served us well for many years.
3. Don’t shop for specific meals
A trap that the Pinterest culture and new cooks fall into is buying ingredients for individual / boutique meals. This is a super expensive way to do meal planning. The issue is, after you buy the Himalayan Pink Sea Salt, and the Mediterranean Broken Leaf Thyme for $10 each, you will never use them again! This drives the per meal cost way up and leaves you with racks and racks of unused spices.
Instead, you should have +10 recipes that you cycle through each month that use the same core set of seasonings, meats, and vegetables. Of course, you can change the rotation as certain foods fall out of favor or on special occasions. This is not to lock you in, but to help keep your food and meal planning consistent.
4. Make a list
Grocery retailers love for us to take a social-media-like scroll through their aisles to see what inspires us. In fact, as I have mentioned above the layout and placement of products is optimized for just that. If you do not have a plan when you enter the store, then by default you will be following theirs. As you might imagine, that will be more expensive for you.
To develop your list, you could keep a running list of things as things run out. Alternatively, you could spend some time reviewing your pantry and refrigerator for items that you are low on. Its relatively easy in my household as over time we have gotten quite good at estimating our food needs for entire month. At the end of the month our pantries, refrigerators and cabinets are empty!
Always keep and update the prior month’s list, as you simply need to update quantities for the current month. As you become more sophisticated, you can note the prices of items that you put in your cart. When you find a good deal, relative to your price list, buy more. If things are overpriced, perhaps skip them. If and when you have prices on everything, you can proactively estimate your total bill. This will allow you to make trade-offs at home, when you can consider things objectively as opposed to the store.
5. Don’t waste food
According to the USDA, Americans waste 30-40% of their food equating to a whopping $161 billion dollars a year. I don’t know about you, but the idea of burning 30-40% of my money, doesn’t sit well with me. Make it a habit to consume all the food you buy, and you will keep more money in your pocket.
To do this, get into the habit of boxing up your leftovers and eating the for lunch that week. Remember not to buy single-use ingredients and things that you do not use regularly each month. If you are only buying this that you use regularly you will not have food spoil in your refrigerator.
A trick you can use with your children is to put less food on their plates initially. As they finish certain portions of their meal, you can always add more. This will minimize the waste created, as kids are notoriously poor at estimating their appetites.
Take action: Get a tupperware set with various sizes so you can box up your leftovers. Many things taste better when the flavors have had more time to marinate!
6. Get creative
I often kid my wife as we approach the end of the month and the pantries are quite bare. She doesn’t have a limiting belief that she is unable to make a certain meal because she is ‘out of teriyaki sauce’. For one, she has an uncanny ability to create sauces from scratch based on the taste and the ingredients she has on hand! For the rest of us normal people, I would recommend you google ‘how to make teriyaki sauce.’ As another example, if you are out of eggs for your waffle recipe, just google ‘waffle egg substitute.’
My point is, don’t run to the store for a specific meal, try first to get creative and make more things from scratch. Alternatively, make a completely different meal. Remember principle #1, every additional trip to the grocery store will cost you money. Principle #5 is don’t waste food, so find a creative way to incorporate odds-and-ends into your next meal.
7. Rewards cards
I’m always looking for little life optimizations that can help me meet my personal finance goals a little faster. As my family loves to travel, we have acquired quite a number of Travel Credit cards that earn significant sign up bonuses that are redeemable for travel. Given that groceries are one of the larger line items in the budget there is an opportunity to leverage the power of that spending we’re already doing on a monthly basis.
Travel cards such as the Sapphire Preferred will give you a sign up bonus of 50,000 points valued at $1,000 after you spend $4,000 in the first three months. Your grocery budget alone can account for half of this! For the typical person, your regular household expenditures will easily account for the remainder. This was a no brainer to my wife and I when we learned about travel rewards!
After you receive the signup bonus, you receive a point or more for every purchase. Additionally, if you sign up for the United MileagePlus X app, you can further multiply those points at participating retailers such as Walmart.
Take action: If you are interested in free travel, apply for the Sapphire Preferred, which is widely recognized as the best card for travel rewards. You can stack multiple credit card signup bonuses to earn. For other card options see our Travel for Free page.
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