So many times I have gone shopping after work. I am tired, very hungry, and the last place that I want to be is the grocery store. Browsing all the fresh produce and easily prepared meals suddenly transforms my idea of cooking a simple meal into a gourmet 3 course dinner with crusty bread and dessert.
My cart fills up quickly, becoming laden down with specialty ingredients and ‘oh I need to make that’ items. Plus, all of the ‘yum, that sounds really good’ or ‘because I love my hubby’ food jumps into the cart too.
As I make my way to the register, I glance down at my overflowing cart and reality starts sinking in. Yikes, this is going to cost a lot more than I was planning to spend. Too tired to go through the cart removing things I do not need, I hold my breath as the cashier rings up my purchases, hoping the damage will not be too far over budget.
The total is always higher than I had hoped and sends me scrambling through all my cash envelopes to find enough money to ‘borrow’ from another category to pay for the groceries. Kicking myself, I hand over my debit card to cover the remainder of the balance.
I try to remain civil and carry on a decent conversation with the clerk, all the while feeling more and more sick to my stomach because of the stress of spending more than I bargained for and knowing I will have to juggle the books when I arrive home.
Even more hungry and tired after shopping, I arrive home late, crabby, frustrated, and stressed; not a good mindset to start cooking dinner (no time for gourmet tonight!) while handling sharp objects. My hubby disappears into hiding.
This scenario rarely happens to me any more and never to the same extreme when it does, for which I am so thankful. Planning ahead is the key. However, being debt free has, oddly enough, has given me the ability to have better control on handling my grocery budget without feeling as though my style is cramped.
Honestly, I would much rather spend the time preparing for my grocery trip beforehand instead of dealing with the stress and hating myself afterwards. No, I have not discovered any magical talents and yes, I still shop for groceries all the time.
How do I shop without breaking the bank?
- Bring a snack. Or eat before leaving.
- Choose a different time to shop. I would rather go when I am mentally fresh and am not tired. I like to shop in the morning before going to work, if there is time.
- Menu plan. This is my nemesis. I love having a menu planned, but I struggle with constantly adding a few meals to keep ahead with the schedule. If this is a struggle for you too, fight through it and use a menu plan. Having a menu helps minimize the grocery shopping disaster. I only plan dinners. We eat the same breakfast every day, with few variations and lunches are leftovers plus sandwich stuff for my hubby. You may need to plan breakfasts, lunches and snacks. If you have any tips on how to stay on top of menu planning regularly, please share them.
- Use a visual menu. I made a magnetic menu board using a picture frame, a 8×12 piece of sheet metal, super strong magnets (do not waste your money on the peel off strips of magnets that you cut yourself. They are worthless!), magnetic primer, a plastic calendar (see the note in the tutorial on where to buy), scrapbook paper and craft paint. The tutorial I used is here and the supplies may be cheaper locally. The primer was little pricey and there was more than enough plastic calendars, so I made a couple of menu boards as gifts. Tip: Get a couple friends to share the cost of supplies and make menu boards together. I love my magnetic menu board with the meal ideas on magnets. The meals are super easy to rearrange based on how crazy my week turns out to be. Feel free to find another solution that works for you.
- Make a grocery list of what is actually needed. Do this after menu planning. Think about all the meals and snacks for the week. Do not forget any essentials, like baking powder, which are about to run out. At the store only put items in the cart that are on the list.
- Use a notebook. I use a spiral notebook to write down meals for the next week with the ingredients listed and make a grocery list on the next page. This notebook goes to the store with me. That way if the cilantro, which was supposed to go for the chicken tortilla soup, was used up in a salsa craving, I can look at the ingredients listed to jog my memory to buy more.
- Track prices. It is super helpful to start tracking regular and sale prices in a book or on a phone for the items regularly bought and at the stores frequented. The price list needs to be updated or looked at often and taken to the store when shopping. When the item is on sale, buy several to keep on hand (thus saving money later).
- Organize coupons before heading to the store. There is nothing worse than having coupons and forgetting to use them. (One thing I loved about paying for a coupon program-it helped me stay organized!)
- Write down how much the items on the list will cost. I do this both before going to the store, if I have a good idea of the cost or from looking at the ads, and then again at the store when I put the item into my cart.
- Break the grocery money into subcategories. (I love sub accounts!) Decide to spend a percentage of your budget each month on meat, fresh produce, dairy, eggs, and other which include specialty and fun items. I use tabs for each sub category inside my envelope system. Most of amounts can be flexible so more fresh produce can be bought one month and more meat the next, however splitting up the grocery money does help stay on track.
- Add up the final prices before going to the register. Round up to account for tax and the couple items which may have been missed ($1.63 becomes $2). When there is a total cost in mind, there are very few surprises at the register.
- Remove items out of your cart. Remove fun or unnecessary or can wait until next week items out of the cart if there is not enough money based on the total. Do not justify the purchase. The item will still be there next week.
- Plan any splurges. Planning allows me to spend more on a fancy dinner in for a special date or if I will be bringing a dish to a potluck. If there is leftover money in the envelope after all the essentials are paid for, then buy a treat.
- Use cash. Cash is such a great way to really keep the grocery money under control by spending less since letting go of money is hard to do. Take out the amount of money designated for groceries each month and keep the cash in an envelope.
- Discipline yourself to only spend what is in the grocery envelope. I need to continue improving on this area too, since I borrow money from other envelopes on occasion.
- Know what is in the fridge, freezer and cupboard to avoid buying duplicates (unless of course the item is on sale and you are stocking up).
- Buy enough food to last for the week. Doing this will eliminate the need for an extra trip when hungry (and the surprises that jump into the cart even though you ran into the store for 3 items).
- Start making food from scratch. Dollars can be stretched and there is often more food when buying ingredients instead of prepared meals. Convenience comes at a high cost. Yes, cooking takes more time, but is so much better and cheaper in the long run.
- Increase grocery money to a more realistic amount. If you have tried several of the above strategies and continue to come up short every month, having to steal from other categories, then it is time to re-evaluate your grocery budget. Once I did not have any more payments, I did increase my food budget to be more realistic considering how choosy I am about buying high quality, nutrient dense ingredients. When you are on tight budget and want to increase the grocery amount, a cut will have to be made in another category to keep everything in balance.
So there you have it, my secret to avoiding grocery store stress from overspending comes down to four main pillars of being organized, menu planning, cooking from scratch, and using cash. A fair amount of time is involved, but I eat better without ruining my budget and have a much higher quality of life filled with peace.
Are you ready to stop hating yourself after grocery shopping? You will see improvements and be able to keep your grocery money under better control with implementing even just a few of these tips.
Have grocery shopping secrets of your own? Please share them below.