Food. You can't live without it, but it sure can be expensive.
It's also a time suck, especially because the grocery stores spend so much time playing bait-and-switch with us, requiring Inspector-Clouseau-level skills to find, for example, the pine nuts.
For those who have been following my tales on GRS, it should come as no surprise The Husband does the grocery shopping, at least the bulk of it. I tend to suffer from sensory overload in the grocery store (the cereal aisle is paralyzing to me) and often will come home with $300 worth of … well, not much. So early on The Husband took it over. Recently, he was under the weather and the kids and I lasted as long as we could with the provisions we had, but the realization finally came that we needed to do what The Husband calls The Big Shopping. My daughter and I went together, and at the end of the travail, she turned to me and said, “How does Dad do this every week?” Whoever does the grocery shopping in your household, give them a hug.
Back to the expensive part. According to the USDA's Economic Research Service, in 2014, U.S. consumers, businesses, and government entities spent $1.46 trillion on food and beverages in grocery stores and other retailers and on away-from-home meals and snacks. That's the most recent year that full statistics are available. But the USDA can tell us that
“While the all-items Consumer Price Index has risen 5.4 percent from 2011 to 2015, the all-food CPI rose 8.5 percent over the same time period, just under the 8.7 percent rise in housing costs. Livestock diseases, major weather events, and shocks to global food markets have caused price inflation for food to outpace many other consumer spending categories. Only prices for medical care and housing have risen faster than food prices.”
Holy smokes. That's a huge increase in costs, and a lot of money out of your wallet.
What's an eater to do?
Well, there are tons of strategies to help you keep your at-home food costs in check. The one dating back to the dinosaurs is couponing, in which you spend time poring through Sunday newspapers and clipping little squares, then filing them by category, then bringing them to the grocery store with you, then making sure you by the right brand and the right amount, etc. etc. There have been TV game shows made, entire books written, and housewives made famous by uber-couponing.
We (and by we, I mean The Husband) quit coupons years ago (although for a long time he was meticulous about it). His reasoning is that brand name products are typically more expensive than the store brand, and in nearly all cases, the product is identical (except not when it comes to English muffins or peanut butter, two battles I wage constantly). Also, we do the bulk of our shopping at Big Y, a regional New England family-owned chain that offers discount coins on specific items (gold and silver) and for $25 a year, you can have a Silver Card, which gives you discounts on many items. Our most recent grocery bill (butter, eggs, milk, cheese, toilet paper, etc.) was $91.95, and with our Silver Card we saved $23.21. Figuring an average of $25/week savings (and trust me, that's low because our typical weekly grocery expense is around $200), that's $1,300 we save a year.
There's also digital coupons, in-store coupons, etc. Our store offers lots of Buy 1, Get 2 free deals, which, if you have a chest freezer like we do, works out well in terms of both saving and stocking up. Bread, bagels, chicken breasts, pork roasts … all freezable and huge savings.
We also have a Stop & Shop, and their card as well, although their prices are overall higher than Big Y. Stop & Shop gas points is a great incentive, except for two things: We don't have a Stop & Shop gas station near us, and gas prices are pretty low now. So we typically only go there if it's a couple of ‘emergency' items, or if we need fried chicken (their fried chicken is SO GOOD).
We have one other locally owned grocery store, which does not offer a value card like Big Y. We shop at this store for any higher end or gourmet items we may need, as they cater to a more upper class clientele and have a great selection of gourmet cheeses and organic items, for example.
Paper goods, bathroom products, contact lens solutions, etc. — all that we try and get at the large discount stores, like Wal-Mart, because they are significantly cheaper than at the grocery store.
Our one hard-and-fast rule is groceries are paid with cash! Always.
We do try to be smart about shopping, eliminating the impulse buying and planning our meals in advance in order to shop efficiently and cost-effectively. But with a 15-year-old boy in the house, you just never know when he's going to eat an entire … something … and it requires that last minute run to the store. Those can add up!
How about you? What's your grocery shopping/saving strategy? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Author: Elissa Bass
Elissa Bass is a nationally award-winning journalist who has been a reporter and editor for both print and online publications for 30 years. After a layoff in 2013, she now runs her own marketing/social media/PR company. Born and raised in western Massachusetts, she makes her home in Stonington, CT with her husband, their two children, and their rescued pit bull. Visit her website at http://www.elissabass.com/ to learn more.