How often do you go to the supermarket? Could you get by making only one trip per month? What if it saved you money?

My wife and I are both reading America’s Cheapest Family by Steve and Annette Economides. During his time as an ad salesman, Steve was “shocked to read in a food industry publication that grocers expect six of ten items consumers pick up in the store to be unplanned purchases.”

Steve and Annette discovered that scientific research backs up what grocers already knew. In their book, the Economides cite a study analyzing the decisions of 4,200 customers who made 30,000 purchases in fourteen different cities. Researchers found:

  • “Shoppers making a ‘quick trip’ to the store to pick up a few specific items usually purchase 54 percent more than they planned.”
  • “Forty-seven percent of shoppers go to the store three or four times each week.”
  • “Consumers graze at the grocery store, with impulse buys making up between 50.8 and 67.7 percent of total purchase.”

When people shop more often, they buy more stuff.

What’s the solution? For the past 25 years, Steve and Annette, America’s cheapest family, have practiced once-a-month shopping. They only go grocery shopping 12 times a year. This boggles my mind; Kris and I shop every week. (Lately I’ve been making many supplementary grocery trips, and my food budget reflects that.)

Once-a-month shopping
How does shopping once a month work? First of all, it takes time. It also takes organization. Here’s how the Economides do it:

  1. They make a list of the things they need, which they update continually. They also use meal plans.
  2. They accumulate coupon and ads for the things they use and the stores they frequent. During the days before their monthly shopping trip, they match sales and discounts to the items on their list.
  3. They divide and conquer. Steve tackles the perimeter of the stores (meat, produce, dairy, and baked goods) while Annette scours the center (processed food, household goods, baking supplies).
  4. They leave younger children with a babysitter. The Economides have found that they save time and money by leaving younger children at home instead of letting them distract them from the task at hand. Older children, however, can actually help.
  5. They hit multiple stores. Different stores have different strengths. If you shop every week, it may not make sense to drive all over town to save a few pennies. By shopping just once a month, however, travel costs are diminished.
  6. When they have the food home, they prioritize perishables. Certain produce (grapes, bananas) need to be consumed earlier in the month. Other foods (milk, bread) may need to be frozen.

The Economides admit that each monthly shopping trip takes longer than a weekly shopping trip. But overall the process saves time and money. For one thing, it cuts down on the number of opportunities for impulse purchases.

Once-a-month shopping has worked so well for them that they’ve been doing it since 1984!

Putting the plan into practice
“This would never work for you,” Kris said when she and I discussed this concept. “You shop all the time.”

She’s right. Since I started working from home, I find myself at the grocery store several times each week. For example, I might crave a rotisserie chicken for dinner, so I head to the store to indulge my whim. While this sounds nice, it’s actually costing me more money.

  • I’m indulging my whims, which tend toward more expensive foods.
  • Each time I go to the store, I tend to buy extras. That rotisserie chicken turns into chicken and a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread, for example.
  • We’re wasting more food. I’m not eating leftovers, and sometimes (I’m ashamed to admit), I let other food expire.

Could Kris and I get by shopping just once a month? We’re willing to give it a try. She and I have agreed to start by cutting our trips to twice a month (with a supplemental weekly run for milk and eggs). If this works, we’ll make them even less often. The most difficult part, however, will be restraining myself from those quick trips for impulse meals.

Update: Many readers are concerned about how once-a-month shopping would affect their supply of fresh fruits and vegetables. Here’s what Steve and Annette say in their book:

Limiting our trips to the store means that certain fruits and vegetables must be eaten earlier in the month because they are more perishable. Grapes and bananas usually last a week. Once they’re gone, we move on to other fruits. Pears, lettuce, cucumbers, and peppers can last two weeks. Apples, cabbage, radishes, oranges, and celery can last a month.

We are often asked about storing bread, cheese, and milk. How could we possibly make those last a month? Well, we carefully freeze all three.

You should do what works for you. Kris and I are going to try twice-a-month shopping; the key idea is to reduce the number of trips to the supermarket.

Related note: At AskMetafilter recently, nitsuj asked, What’s your secret tip for saving money at the grocery store?”

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