Eat Well, Spend Less: Save Time & Money on Grocery Shopping

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Time is money. And it matters how you spend it while grocery shopping.

(The giveaway is now closed. Congrats to the winner: holbrookmail@)

Grocery shopping is one of my all-time favorite activities. I’m weird. I know.

There’s something about seeing all those different ingredients lined up on the shelf, it gets my mind going with the possibilities. I want to try out that maple sugar and the shelf-stable whipping cream at Trader Joe’s. I’m tempted by the piles of fresh produce at Sprouts. And the clearance section at Ralphs? It’s a regular stop.

I stay out of fabric and craft stores for this reason. I buy fabrics and supplies and then don’t know what to do with them.

I know what to do with the food, though.

Four years ago I spent hours, probably about ten per week, clipping coupons, tracking sales, planning my grocery trips, shopping, and unloading. It was a time investment that was well worth it. We had a very small grocery budget since we were busy paying off our debts. I figured my efforts garnered me about $25/hour in savings.

I had more time than money, so it worked for me.

Today we have a little more money since it’s not going to car payments and credit card bills, but I feel like I have less time. Partner that with a slight shift in our eating habits, away from processed to more whole foods, and my shopping habits have changed. But, I don’t have that much money that I can throw all caution to the wind.

Folks who follow my Grocery Geek posts already know this, but currently, I’m trying to keep our grocery budget to $800/month to feed our family of eight. Keep in mind that this is FOUR boys who eat like ravenous animals.

Here’s how I work to save time (and money) at the grocery store:

I don’t use coupons (much).

After several years of die-hard couponing, I gave it up. Don’t get me wrong. I credit the effective use of couponing to helping us get out of debt. Coupons sustained us in a very trying time. So, I am not belittling their use.

That said, I do think coupons have their place. They were a wonderful means to an end for our family.

Somewhere along the line, several circumstances collided to make me rethink my coupon usage.

  1. California stores became stricter about their coupon policies. It was too complicated to keep track of the stores’ different policies. Some allowed internet printables; others limited their usage.
  2. I realized that most of the things that I bought were not “real food”. That’s not to say that you can’t find coupons for unprocessed foods, but the ones I was most temped to buy were highly processed with lots of junk added. Our family doesn’t need or want that.
  3. It wasn’t worth my time to go get the paper each week or search for printables. Time is money and it wasn’t paying off.

For me, the time investment of couponing didn’t reap us big rewards for our eating habits or our budget, so I was okay to let it go. That said, if I find a good one, I do clip it and try to use it effectively, matching it to a sale to increase the savings.

I know my stores.

Each week I get the sales circulars from seven different stores: Ralphs, Albertsons, Vons, Smart and Final, Stater Brothers, Fresh and Easy, and Sprouts. I don’t spend time even looking at four of those flyers. Based on their location or their product offerings, it’s just not worth it to me to even consider those stores.

Ralphs, Vons, and Sprouts get my attention on sale items. Walmart, Costco, and Trader Joe’s are regular stops for me that don’t offer weekly circulars. I know which stores have the prices and products that fit our family’s needs, which have great clearance sections, and what variety each one carries, so I don’t waste my time on other stores.

I limit my shopping to just a few stores each week.

Even though, I used to go to up to ten stores each week, including two different drug stores, I usually limit my shopping to one or two stores each week. I gassed up the car today for a whopping $4.65/gallon. So, transportation costs are now making a big difference in where I go and how I shop.

I check the sales.

Before I even get in the car, I check the sales. This way I know which store is worth going to. This past weekend I rifled through the flyers and decided that Trader Joe’s would give the biggest bang for my buck, transportation, and time. I made one cohesive list and made one trip on a day when I was already halfway there for another reason.

I make a list.

Making a list saves me time because I don’t end up short on items that we need. I don’t overbuy (usually). And I don’t make extra trips. I try to buy for at least a week at a time, stockpiling when there’s a great sale.

I let someone else do the shopping or have it delivered.

It’s a hard thing to let go control over something I enjoy doing. I’d much rather let someone else clean toilets. But, the reality is that having my husband stop at Costco on his way home from work saves me time and gas money. It’s on his regular route, and he doesn’t mind doing it.

I also decided to have our produce box delivered each week. Going to get the box not only involved time and gas money, but it took a huge bite out of our school day. For an extra $5 I get to stay home and let the box come to me.

This also saves me mental effort which I highly value. I need to keep all the brain cells I can.

We each have different priorities and different ways of shopping. These change with the seasons of life and finances. It’s very possible, though, to eat well, spend, less, and save time.

Eat Well, Spend Less

This post is part of an ongoing series about how to eat well and spend less. Along with some fabulous foodies, organizers, and frugalistas, I’ve been bringing you suggestions on how to eat like a king without becoming a pauper to do it.

This month we’re sharing tips and tricks to save time in the kitchen. From cleaning up in a jiffy to creating a well-stocked pantry to prepping food in advance, we’ve got you covered.

We’re also each sharing a giveaway for a copy of my book, Not Your Mother’s Make-Ahead and Freeze Cookbook. Talk about your time savers! Freezer cooking, while it does require a little time investment on the front end, can reap you huge amounts of time savings on busy nights when you crave homemade convenience foods.

Win a copy of my cookbook!

To Enter:

Simply complete the information on this form. Please know that the information is only being gathered for the purposes of mailing you your prize in the event that you are chosen as the winner. This information will not be sold, traded, or given away.

This promotion is open until Monday, October 22, 2012, at 8 pm PST and is limited to US residents, 18 years or older. Friends and family of Jessica Fisher and Life as MOM are ineligible for entry. The winner will be chosen randomly. The prize for this promotion is provided by and shipped by Harvard Common Press and/or its representatives. This post will be updated with the beginning of the winner’s email address. Jessica Fisher and Life as MOM will not be held responsible for unclaimed or undelivered prizes.

Be sure to check out what the other ladies are sharing this week and enter their giveaways as well:

How do YOU save time on grocery shopping?

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  1. Janine Flett says:

    🙁 If my calculations are correct, with conversion of gallons to litre, I pay on average about $6.00 per gallon. So riding pur pushbikes to work and leaving the car at home is a great money saver!

  2. Thank you for such a timelly post! I was thrilled to read that you weren’t touting coupons as the end all, be all & that they can be found for everything (they can not around here, that’s for sure!). You definitely made me feel better reguarding my shopping (1 local store which has better prices than than another, 1 trip to BJ’s wholesale club–like Costco, & 1 trip to Target). Thank you!

  3. The whipping cream at TJ’s is awesome! I bought some on impulse last time I was there and we loved it. And it was pretty cheap for cream.

  4. I do the Click N Pull at Sam’s Club (.com) — it took me several hours to make a list of the things I usually buy at Sam’s. Once a month, I then click on what I need, order, have them shop & pull then I go, pay and load. I can even send my husband or college kids to pick up the order. I have now done this for 3 years. It helps me stay on track with spending because I’m not roaming through the store 🙂

  5. I also used to clip lots of coupons. I used to save a lot. I used to store hop as well. Here’s what I’ve noticed in the past couple years – coupons are not as good. I used to get a lot of $1.00 off coupons, but these are rare now. I used to be able to group coupons, but Target doesn’t print off as many “target” coupons anymore. Most of the coupons are for junk food and items that we now have stopped buying because of their content. We shop at Costco and food coops for more items now, which do not take manufacture coupons, so it’s a waste of my time to clip. Now if they started coming out with coupons for produce then I’d probably start clipping again.
    So now, I watch the sales, buy from food coops (which have great prices) and buy in bulk.

    • Jessica Fisher says:

      Well, that’s interesting. I thought it was just me and my particular circumstances that made it not work so well.

      • I do still use coupons on certain things – mostly health products. I’ve actually thought about stopping our paper delivery. It really used to pay off, but there are some weeks when all I’m getting is milk, eggs, and fresh produce – none of which I clip coupons for.
        Part of me believes that the show “extreme couponing” or whatever it was and all the great blogs out there that give the deals and match ups actually led to the slow down in coupons. Not the use, but the amount that you can save – just my two cents. I could totally be wrong here. I love those blogs and there is nothing wrong with them, but maybe the manufacturers were not happy letting people save so much money.

  6. I live in rural Kentucky. I follow many food blogs. I wish I had a costco, trader joes, or sprouts here.
    Just bought the cookbook. Can’t wait to get it and try to restructure my freezer cooking. Love the blog.

  7. I am on a crusade to make sure no food goes to waste in our house. The amount of food we used to throw away because it expired, didn’t get eaten, became a science experiment in the back of the fridge makes me ashamed. I regularly schedule one night a week to be our leftover clean out the fridge night (we call it “Spaghettio Surprise” night, after the quote from “Overboard”. Because we are klassy like that). All containers of leftovers get opened and put out on the counter. I may or may not make a veggie or open a can of fruit to go along with whatever we have, it just depends on how many leftovers there are. This not only insures all food gets eaten, but it also helps with cleaning out the refrigerator, making room for new foods!

    • I feel the same way about left overs. It bothers me so much when I have to throw away food. We do the left over night thing as well. I still end up throwing things away, but near as much as I use to. I try to make food that I can repurpose, so if I have a bunch of spagetti sauce left over from a dinner, I will make lasagne with the left overs, and different meal so I get no complaints about eating the same thing twice. I do this for soups as well. I had a bunch of squash left over from Thanksgiving so instead of trying to convince the kids to eat squash, I mixed it with some organic creamy chicken soup I had, pureed it and made a completely different meal that everyone liked. I also find that I throw away less food if I do less experimenting. I try to stick to things I know my family likes.


    • Jessica Fisher says:

      Same here, only we do it for lunch.

    • Keeping a few chickens in our backyard has reduced my “throwing away all the gross food” guilt. They eat everything! The eggs are of course nice…but what is really nice is to clean out your pantry and let the chickens have a feast!

  8. I shop online and I buy in bulk!

  9. I find it interesting that the Walmart where you live does not put out a circular. In Ontario where I live they distribute a grocery circular and a store one weekly. I can also find it online if for some reason I do not receive it.


  10. What are your tricks, so to speak, for feeding a bunch of growing kids? We only have three, but I find that some weeks the pantry is bare by mid-week, while other weeks see produce rotting in the fridge because nobody wanted apples for snack or someone’s growth spurt tapered off. Do you have some healthy, shelf stable snack items that aren’t completely processed? We do a lot of yogurt, fruit and cheese, but all of those can spoil quickly. Trader Joe’s Trail Mix is a hit in our house, but I need more options! Thanks for any ideas you might have.

    • Jessica Fisher says:

      Well, lately, I offer fruit and veg as the first snack. Crackers are clearly the easier option, but I notice that if I push the produce, esp if there’s hummus or sunbutter (ranch or peanut butter for fams without egg and nut allergies), then they very willingly oblige. When we’re out, we’re out. But, I can usually fall back on the snacks you mention as well as popcorn in the air popper.

  11. This post was so encouraging to me. The first one that I have come across that is similar to my family… 8 people, 4 of them boys and dealing with high food and gas prices in Calif.
    I fight to keep our food budget at $800 a month. Technically we have 7 people now in our house. My oldest dd just got married 2 wks ago today. But she came over yesterday and went shopping in Mom’s pantry, stocked up on several staples I have. They also come do their laundry over here as they dont have a washer and dryer. So, I will not be decreasing our budget as it is so hard to not go over and my dd will be shopping here alot, plus we are really trying not to buy gmo foods that we eat regularly, like corn tortillas, corn tortilla chips, and potatoes. We also only eat gluten free as myself and 3 of my kids have celiac disease. I also homeschool and have a chronic illness, so no time or strength for coupons. I was beating myself up on occasion as I thought I SHOULD be doing better with our food budget, but it hasn’t been happening. Thanks again for this post!

  12. I’m starting to feel the same way. Coupons for whole foods just seem to far and few in between. And they pretty much don’t exist for my local farmer’s markets! I’ll check every now and then if I need to stock up on household items like toilet paper, paper towels, toiletries…but even those will soon go since I’m going to start using cloth napkins. And my toiletry use has changed drastically over the year to where all my skin and hair stuff will eventually consist of food! 😉

  13. Good tips! I too include Costco and TJ’s on my regular shopping rounds along with several others. I drive a lot anyway so it’s worth it for me right now to stop at a bunch of stores. For a while I kept a price book for several grocery stores to make sure I knew which stores had the lowest prices on certain items. That was instructive.

  14. So far this month, I have saved $60.50 with coupons at the grocery store. To save time I only shop at one grocery store each week. Thirty percent of the coupons I used were for non-food items, primarily toilet paper and baby wipes. The food coupons I use most regularly are for coffee, cheese, and meat. This month I had meat coupons for ground pork, tuna fish, pepperoni, and breakfast sausage. I use my coupon savings to make more room in the grocery budget for fresh fruit.

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