Step 1 of the low-budget food challenge I’m undertaking was grocery shopping. Tomorrow I start the actual challenge. I’m raising money (and donating funds myself) for Feeding America while I do the challenge. If you’d to donate, click here for my fundraising page.
Lessons Learned From Grocery Shopping
- It was really hard and took twice as long as my usual shopping trips due to the amount of planning needed, and because I went to two stores (in the same shopping center)
- I shopped at Target and Wegmans. Some things really are cheaper at Wegmans, and simply not available at Target.
- Spices, seasonings, and other pantry staples are luxuries I take for granted
- Meats that I thought would be OK because I could make them last for 5 meals still didn’t fit the budget
- Sometimes I had to buy things that were not the greatest value (for example, chili seasoning pack for 99 cents instead of separate seasonings that would last longer)
Tips If You’re On A Budget
- Planning in advance is extremely helpful.
- If you have more than one grocery store in your area, do some price comparisons. Everyone is always surprised when mention my spreadsheet of Wegmans prices (for the essentials, not the “fancy” stuff) vs. other stores in the area.
- If you can afford it, try to pick up one item each grocery trip that will help build a baseline pantry. This will help in the long run because you’ll be able to begin using more and more things you have on hand. (I’m developing a checklist, which I’ll link here when I’m finished.)
- Know what items you can use for multiple things (for example, a whole chicken for $6 can yield a couple of dinners, chicken for chicken salad, and chicken stock).
- Be careful of the “cost per unit” price comparisons on store labels. For example, canned kidney beans were labeled as 67 cents per pound, and the dry ones $1.49 per pound. But this does not take into account that 1 pound of dried kidney beans will yield about 2 lbs 7oz of cooked (source: Serious Eats). So really, the dried beans were about 61 cents per pound when considering how much the package would actually produce.
- Choose your battles on getting the best value vs. saving money now. Even though it might be cheaper per unit to buy the 12-pack of whatever item, this may not be feasible to do for everything.
What Did I Buy?
- Whole chicken
- Ground beef
- Green beans (frozen)
- Black beans (dried)
- Kidney beans (dried)
- Canned crushed tomatoes
- White bread
- Peanut butter
- Brown sugar
- Eggs (half dozen)
- Goya seasoning
- Chili seasoning packet
Total = $32.19, which leaves a little room for me to stop for a $1 coffee during the work week. I made my initial donation for the difference between what I spent (plus the coffees I’m going to buy) and my weekly grocery budget.
The Whole Story
I knew grocery shopping was going to be hard, but I underestimated how hard it would be. There were some items that I picked up (for example, a whole chicken) that I knew would last and I could get a lot out of. My confidence quickly faded after choosing the chicken. It also took me about twice as long to shop than normal because it was hard to think about how I was going to make everything last the week. I definitely made some poor choices along the way, which resulted in backtracking and putting items back.
Baseline Pantry – Yikes!
One of the biggest realizations I had during my shopping trip was how fortunate I am to have a well-stocked pantry and fridge, and that I take this for granted. Things like flour, butter, olive oil, herbs, and spices are not something I have to think about. So how could I make this $38 stretch and get some items that would give my meals some flavor? I have plenty of seasonings at home, but I’m not going to cheat and use those. The only things I’m going to use that I already have are salt, pepper, flour, and sugar. I looked for seasoning blends that I could use for multiple things. I chose Goya’s Sazonador Total. I’m going to use the one I already have at home, but I included the cost in my calculations as if I bought it. After deciding I was going to make chili (see next paragraph), I needed a seasoning for that. Normally I season my chili with chili powder ($1), cumin ($3), paprika ($3), and cayenne ($4, or $1 if I bought red pepper flakes and ground them myself). My $38 budget couldn’t afford all of those, so while it’s not the best value, I opted for a 99 cent package of chili seasoning mix.
Meat is Expensive!
One of the poor choices I made, and had to put back, was a half sirloin (confession: it was also grass fed and organic – what was I thinking?!) I was going to get the sirloin strips that I normally use for beef stew, but at $17 there was no way that was happening. I thought spending $11 on a half sirloin that I could cut into cubes would be OK because I was planning to make beef stew to last the week – but even considering that being one meal over at least 5 days, it wasn’t going to work. I changed directions and decided to go for ground beef for chili. I lucked out because I found a very small package of it.
This was a tough one. I have a Keurig, so I was limited to k-cups (cheapest I could find was $4.49 for a pack of 12). I drink milk in my coffee, which was $1.69 for a half gallon. So $6.18 total, and each cup of coffee would be about 52 cents when considering the cost of the k-cups and the milk. However, this is one of those things where I considered opting out of morning coffee a few days out of the week and stopping by McDonalds for a $1 coffee. If I just had coffee 3 days per week, the total cost would be $3.18. If I stopped each work day, it would be $5.30. So I’m going with the McDonalds plan. This is one of those things where it would be a better value to get the coffee and milk and make at home, especially because I would’ve gotten 2 weeks out of the coffee. I could also use the link for mashed potatoes. But similar to the chili seasoning situation, I decided to go for overall lower cost here instead of value. I think this is an important point to recognize. Certainly it would be great if we could all buy the best value every time because it saves money in the long run, but the unfortunate reality is that not everyone can afford to spend more in the short term to yield long term savings.