5 Steps to Get Your Grocery Budget Under Control

PHOTO: Some common-sense steps to save more on your grocery bill.

In my last column I profiled Stacey and Brandon Steinmetz of Prairie Du Sac, Wis., because they won Summit Credit Union’s “Project Money” contest, decreasing their debts by $29,982 and increasing their savings by $14,402! I already described how they opened 10 different savings accounts in order to set aside money for 10 different priorities.

Now I want to talk about how they fixed their “grocery problem.” Brandon and Stacey’s grocery bills were eating them alive —when it’s supposed to be the other way around, right? “We were great at making a list, but when we went to the store, extra items magically appeared in the cart,” Stacey said.

“When I started to work with Stacey and Brandon," explained Chris Bethke, their financial coach, “we tracked their expenses and their ‘aha moment’ came when they added up their food costs. They were shocked.”

What to do? First the couple set a grocery budget of $75 a week for their 2-person household. That had to cover breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks, because they also resolved not to eat out until 2015! They learned it’s one thing to name a number and another to stick to it. In order to keep from blowing through their $75, the Steinmetzes then took several common-sense steps:

  • Take inventory of what you already have in the house. I know, duh! But do you do it? I often skip this important step, which can be a huge waste, not only of money but of time. It’s especially bad when you double-buy perishables that will then rot if you don’t use them in time.

  • Scan store circulars and plan meals around the sales. Browsing grocery store circulars to find out what’s on sale is a key step for the health of your wallet—and waistline. By planning what to cook in advance you typically cook healthier meals and you can also take advantage of the lowest cost items at the store.

    *Helpful hint from me: You can use apps like Weekly Ads & Sales or Sunday Saver to view store circulars online, all in one place.

  • Consider shopping at a big box store AND a local grocery store. Stacey adopted a two-stop-shop strategy, going first to a national chain for the bulk of her groceries and then stopping at a local supermarket for just the deeply discounted weekly sale items. “I’ve found that as much as I enjoy buying local,” she said, “there are some things that are 'on sale' at my local [store] yet still much cheaper at [a big box store] at their regular price.” Stacey now makes a shopping list and jots local store sale prices on it so she can compare when she’s at the national chain.

  • Start using—not ignoring—unit prices. Often the same items are available at different stores but in different sizes, so comparing prices is trickier. This is especially true if you are comparing a traditional supermarket’s offerings with those of a club store or big box store. Unit prices are your equalizer. If you know that the soup costs XX per ounce, you can then see whether the jumbo can or the normal can is less expensive.

    *Helpful hint from me: Check unit prices even WITHIN the same store. Why? Contrary to popular belief, sometimes it’s actually cheaper to buy multiple smaller packages than one huge one.

  • Shop with only cash in hand. I mentioned in my last column that my parents did this and, lo and behold, Brandon and Stacey do too. “We carry an envelope stocked with our budgeted dollar amount in cash when we grocery shop,” said Brandon. “We found that when we shopped with our debit card, we had no boundaries with those extra items that weren't on our list.” It’s an oldie but a goodie. If you only have $75 on you, you will only spend $75. What a concept!

I often say that groceries are the gateway to even bigger, better savings. If you can save a little money on your groceries, you can then use that money to do things like put extra money toward your mortgage principal, which can save you tens of thousands over the life of the loan, thanks to reverse compounding.

Summit Credit Union’s Project Money is proof that learning how to save has a snowball effect. In five years, the credit union has helped contestants save more than $150,000 and decrease their debts by more than $220,000. “Project Money was developed as a way to … [inspire] thousands of others to follow along and make changes in their own lives,” said Kim Sponem, CEO of Summit Credit Union. “This high-impact public learning opportunity provides real-life tips for people and is at the heart of what we do every day.” You can learn more “Project Money” tips and tricks here.

Any opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author.

Elisabeth Leamy is a 20-year consumer advocate for programs including "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show." She is the author of Save BIG and The Savvy Consumer. Elisabeth is also a professional speaker, delivering talks nationwide on saving money, media relations, and career success. Elisabeth receives her best story tips from readers, so please connect with her via Facebook, Twitter or her website, to share your ideas.

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