Pocketbook feeling a bit lighter than usual? Did you overspend (again) this holiday season? If you did, you’re NOT alone! Every year, Mike and I say we’re going to cut back, and then one thing leads to another…maybe we get a little too caught up in the holiday spirit…and before we know it, we’ve blown the budget bigly (that’s funny, why doesn’t autocorrect recognize that word? It is a word, isn’t it?)
Well, fear not. 2016 was rough, but thankfully it’s just a blip in the rear view mirror, and now is the perfect time to look ahead and resolve to undertake some cost-cutting steps for 2017. One of the easiest places to start is right in your own kitchen. Let’s be honest, we all spend more than we need to at the grocery. Convenience foods and newfangled specialty products catch our attention, and we buy them! Our logical minds say ‘no,’ but our hearts and stomachs say, “yes, yes, YES!” And in the cart they go, next to the Girls Scouts Thin Mint Cookie cereal.
Don’t watch your money go down the drain. We all know that it makes sense to save cents, so here are 10 simple suggestions to help you keep those Alexander Hamiltons in your pocket where they belong.
Starting with the obvious…
Avoid trendy and superfluous items at the grocery.
They’re SO tempting, I know!! And they’re right there on that pretty display, just calling your name. But seriously, do you really need to try that newest flavor of Lay’s potato chips?
Or that $8 pint of gelato made with magical roots sourced in the wilds of the Madagascan jungle? The pretty packaging is mesmerizing, but we both know that neither our wallets nor our waistlines will benefit from that short-sighted impulse buying.
Which leads me to my next tip…
NEVER GO TO THE STORE HUNGRY!!
That’s one of my biggest downfalls. I leave the gym after a vigorous workout, but I need to make a quick stop at the grocery to pick up just one essential item for dinner. I’m feeling a bit peckish after said workout, and, OH, wait…I see cheese samples. Mmmmm, this cabernet-brined goat cheese is divine. Who cares that it’s $29.99 a pound. I must have some! And those chocolate-covered Hostess donuts look good…I used to love them as a kid. I don’t care that they’re dry and crumbly and probably were baked like 6 months ago and full of preservatives…I have to have them!! I just worked out for an hour, for God’s sake. It’s like I worked them off in advance!
C’mon, don’t tell me you haven’t been there yourself. That quick trip for one item turns into a pirhana-like food frenzy, and before you know it, your basket is full of junk you don’t need and you’ll probably end up throwing in the rubbish bin later. Do yourself and your debit card a favor…just walk away. Grab an apple and get out of there as fast as possible. You’ll thank me later.
And that conveniently segues into my next tip…
Make a shopping list and stick to it.
I know it’s not always possible or realistic, BUT you will save so much time and money by planning a menu in advance and creating a comprehensive shopping list. You don’t have to plan an entire week’s worth of meals, but even thinking just 2-3 days ahead will simplify your life and help you to avoid excessive waste. How many times have you purchased an ingredient that you need for just one recipe, and then the remnants sit in your fridge slowly morphing into some sort of unrecognizable green slime blob?
A little advance planning can prevent surplus and help you make the most of your food purchases. I usually try to sit down on Sunday morning to decide what I want to make that evening. Once I’ve listed the ingredients I need for that dish, I start to think about what other dishes I can make with the extra ingredients that will remain. For instance, if I’m making fish tacos, I know that I will have leftover cilantro, parsley, limes and tomatillos, so I might plan to get a pork roast for the next night which I would serve with a chimichurri (see my recipe at Got Herbs?) made from the cilantro and parsley blended with a little garlic, olive oil and lime or lemon juice, and a side salad with avocado and tomatillo salsa. Having a list, and keeping to your list, will also help avoid the grab-and-run scenarios 1 and 2, as described above.
Of course, I realize that some people just aren’t, and never will be, list-keepers or planners. So, if you’re one of those people and you prefer to fly by the seat of your pants, here’s an alternate cost-saving suggestion for you…
Shop the specials.
Just like the specials on the menu at your favorite restaurant, grocery specials often represent what’s fresh and abundant at the time. If you’re not limited by a particular recipe that calls for specific ingredients, you have the option of simply shopping the specials instead. Take a walk around the exterior of the store (the produce, bakery and meat departments) and look for the featured specials. Make a beeline directly for these displays and start planning your meal(s) around the featured items. Why buy asparagus at $4.99/lb when green beans are on sale for .99/lb? With a little imagination and an open mind, you can make “special” meals with the specials!
Note: Many groceries also have mark-down racks where they slash the prices of meats and produce that are nearing their sell-by dates. Rib-eye for $4.99/lb vs. the same rib-eye for $10.99/lb? Why not?! This does NOT mean that these items are rotten or rancid. It simply means that you should plan to eat them within a day or two of purchase. So, if you’re the type of impromptu person who typically shops off-the-cuff, this is a great opportunity for you to save some big bucks! I always check the “Manager’s Specials” for meat bargains. You never know what gems you might find. And if I don’t plan to eat them right away, I just pop them into the freezer for another time.
Did someone say freezer? Thanks for the chill lead-in. My next cool tip is…
Don’t forget about your freezer!
The freezer is a great place to inventory surplus items that you picked up on sale or possibly had left over from a previous recipe. For example, I often need just a couple of slices of bacon for a recipe like spinach salad or Coq au Vin. I used to throw the remainder of the package into the fridge and forget about it until eventually I would notice that it looked a little wonky and throw it away. Then one day, Mike blew my mind by suggesting we freeze the remaining bacon (in a Ziploc back with all of the air expelled). It had never entered my mind to freeze bacon! Now, we always have bacon on hand. When we need a bit here or a bit there, we chop off a segment of the frozen bacon, and voila! Or we can thaw the whole lot and make breakfast for guests or BLTs on Sunday game days. And no more wasted bacon! I buy it when it’s on sale, toss it into the freezer next to the bargain meats I found on the Manager’s Specials (see above), and pull it out whenever I need it.
In fact, we freeze just about everything we can. Got excess fruit? Don’t let it harbor in the back of your fridge until it starts to grow fuzz. Throw it in the freezer! Frozen strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and pineapple all make perfect ingredients for smoothies that are all the more flavorful because the frozen fruit replaces the ice cubes.
We even freeze leftover OJ and pineapple juice. Why toss it just because it’s nearing its expiration date? Fill up an ice cube tray with any fruit juice and pop it into the freezer. Once the cubes are solid, just pop them out of the tray and store in Ziploc baggies. When you need a small amount of juice, just thaw one out and you’re good to go! I use them all the time for salad dressings, marinades and glazes.
The freezer can be your friend in other ways, as well…
Buy big or go home!
Want to know a little trick for how to save money on meat items without going vegetarian? Buy big! And by that I mean…buy the family-size packages for greater savings. Even if you have a small family or your nest is empty, buy the family pack and split it up into individual meal-size portions that can be stored in the freezer. Most stores offer deep discounts for these larger packages.
At our local store, boneless chicken breasts typically run $4.99/lb or more, but the family-size package can be as little as $1.99/lb. That’s a HUGE savings! Mike and I typically go straight for the larger packages to see what kind of deals we can discover. One of our favorite bargain finds is a package of three pork tenderloins for $3.99/lb (regularly $5.99 and up). Each tenderloin weighs about one pound, the perfect size for a meal for two. That 3-pound package equates to a total of three meals at approximately $4.00 each. Chicken leg quarters can also be very inexpensive when bought in bulk, sometimes as low as $.79 a pound! A 6-pound package at $4.80 equates to 3 meals for just $1.60 a go! Ground meats (beef, turkey, pork, etc.) can also be found in cost-saving family packs. Simply divide them up into appropriate portions and freeze them for an easy, go-to option for a later date. It takes a few extra minutes, but it’ll save you big bucks!! Take the money you save and invest in a vacuum sealer to help you shrink wrap your purchases for easy freezing.
Buy in Season
I remember when strawberries were only available in the summer months and ripe Georgia peaches were a delicacy to anticipate and appreciate. The heady aroma of these sun-kissed fruits would envelop you as soon as you stepped into the grocery. Now, thanks to advancements in hydroculture and overseas shipping, you can get pretty much anything you want, whenever you want, regardless of the natural growing season. But there’s a price to pay for the luxury of having everything at your fingertips. Asparagus purchased in season will be a reasonable $1.99/lb while the same asparagus in the winter months can run you up to $4.99/lb. Same goes for strawberries, raspberries and blueberries; while pumpkins, squashes, carrots, fennel and kale hit their stride in the fall and winter months. So, unless you must have a specific ingredient for a specific recipe, do your wallet and the environment a favor and try to buy what’s in season.
Greens are always in season, but…
Don’t get bogged down by the bag.
There they are…all those pretty bags of triple-washed greens neatly displayed in rows, just calling your name. “Buy me…I’m easy,” they say seductively as you pass by. And you comply, only to find that their sexy allure wears off quickly when you get home and find out that one bad leaf, hidden out of sight somewhere in the middle of the bag, has turned the whole package to a damp, slimy mass remotely resembling moss. And you spent how much on that bag? Most stores charge around $3.50 for that 5 ounce bag of greens, while a package of three heads of romaine (approx. 1 lb) is $2.99 and curly green or red lettuces can run as low as $.79/lb. Let’s do a quick comparison — the equivalent one pound (16 oz.) of the bagged greens would run you an astonishing $11.20 vs. $.79 for the same amount of head lettuce! That’s a 1400% mark-up!! It only takes a minute to wash lettuce and give it a whir in the spinner – a very minor inconvenience, if you ask me. Are those pre-washed bags really worth the “convenience” when you factor in the relative cost disparity?
While we’re on the topic of convenience, here’s a way to include cost-savings and convenience in the same conversation…
Stock up on necessities and non-perishables when they’re on sale.
Anyone who knows me knows that I love sales, almost as much as Oprah loves bread. So, when I see essential items marked down, I can’t help but stock up! It’s not uncommon to find extra boxes of cereal, several varieties of pasta, and sundry other sundries on the shelves in our basement (which Mike has dubbed the CostCo shelves because, of course, that’s where we store the all-important cases of Kleenex, paper towels, toilet paper, chicken stock, diced tomatoes and whatever else we drag home from the mother of all bargain/wholesale stores).
If it’s an item that you know you or your family use on a regular basis — such as cooking oil, peanut butter, or canned soup — and it’s marked down to a respectable price, buy multiples! Tuna is a perfect example: my favorite StarKist Solid White Albacore packed in water often sells for as much as $1.99 a can. So, when it’s on sale for $1.25 a can, I buy 6. It isn’t going to go bad, and you never know when you might need it. Artichoke hearts and canned beans — cannellini, kidney and black beans — are other great examples. You can never have too many in my opinion! Better to buy them on sale and stash them away, then to buy in a panic and pay full price.
But remember: sales are only a bargain if you remember what you’ve stored away and actually use them! Make sure to rotate the stored items into your repertoire on a regular basis so they don’t languish beyond their sell-by dates and collect cobwebs in the back of your cupboards.
And my final 2017 cost-saving tip is…
En’rich’ your lunchtime routine.
Do you have any idea how much you would save annually, if you ate lunch at home every day or packed a lunch to take to the office? An inexpensive lunch at a fast-food chain or local deli will run you no less than $10-12…every day…5 days a week…52 weeks a year. According to my calculations, that’s $2,860 and up per year on average. And that’s a conservative estimate. If you eat out during the week, you likely eat out on the weekends, as well.
Be honest, is that Panera Greek salad with sliced mystery meat really that yummy? Convenient? Yes. Delicious? I dare say not. And think of what you could do with all that money! Make 2017 the year that you say ‘no’ to lunch foods that are equally high in calories and sodium as they are in cost. Keep that money in the pocket of your skinny jeans that will once again fit because you gave up paninis and chips.
But what will I eat, you ask? The obvious solution is simply to make a couple of extra servings when preparing dinner, and then you’ll have easy and convenient lunch foods for the next couple of days. Or cook up a batch of soup or chili on Sunday and enjoy it throughout the week. Make a salad out of the head of lettuce that you washed yourself (see above) and top it with some leftover fajita steak. Turn the leftover rotisserie chicken into a chicken salad. It may seem a bit daunting at first, but once you get in the practice, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it before…especially when you’re able to buy that new handbag with all the money you saved on eating out!
So, there you have it…10 easy tips to help you spend less on your food shopping and consumption in 2017. If you follow just a couple of the cost-saving tactics listed above, you’ll pocket enough money to reward yourself bigly!