When it comes to food spending, I’m kind of all over the place. This past week or so has been interesting, because I’m moving apartments tomorrow, so I’ve been trying to use up everything in the pantry cart and fridge before we move (AKA making some surprisingly good thrown-together dishes, like rice and marinara sauce, and some meals on the blander side, like bread and swiss cheese). But I’ve also been ordering more takeout than usual, because it feels like there’s nothing appetizing lying around.
I can only imagine the amounts of pizza and Chinese food in our near future, when we’re in the process of unpacking and too exhausted to break in the new kitchen. This week is a weird one, and frankly, I have enough to worry about without trying to rein in my food spending at the same time. However, the erraticism of my food spending is not limited to this week. Depending on what’s going on in my life, the amount I spend on food always varies. I have recently spent as little as $40 on groceries in one week, and also as much as $125. (Full disclosure: these are groceries for two people, but we do get a Blue Apron delivery every week that Peter pays for, so the food I buy is meant to cover most of our other meals.)
It’s not that I necessarily need to be spending less on groceries. I’m a loose budgeter, so I don’t allot strict amounts that I’m allowed to spend in each category each month. I simply transfer an amount to savings/my retirement account and cover my bills after each paycheck, and then the rest is up to me. However, I still sometimes suffer from checkout-line shock (like the time a few weeks ago when I went to buy ingredients for a simple DIY taco night with two of our friends and ended up dropping $90??).
When I look at my grocery receipts, I always clearly see where I went wrong — and then I don’t change my ways. It’s not that I’m spending amounts that I can’t afford to, but I would love to be able to increase my monthly savings without worrying that I’m going to go overboard on food. Cooking and eating at home is great, but I also love going out to eat on a weekly or so basis. I’d rather focus on trimming down my grocery spending, without resorting to rice and beans, than cut out a bunch of other things that I love doing. So I’ve taken a long look at my grocery spending habits, and here are my biggest problem areas — and what I’m doing to fix them.
1. Shopping for recipes rather than weeks. I have a tendency to decide during the day what I’m going to make for dinner that night rather than plan ahead for the week. For one thing, I walk to the grocery store, so carrying back a ton of groceries at once is a real pain/somewhat of an impossibility if I’m shopping alone. For another, my friend David comes over to make dinner with us pretty much every Monday, and he and I usually decide what we’re going to make last-minute. This often means I end up with leftover, unused portions of certain ingredients that go unused (I feel like sour cream lasts a weirdly long time, thankfully?). It also means that I’m going to the grocery store a lot more often than I’d like to, and sometimes, that means ordering takeout because I’m feeling too lazy to walk the five minutes down the block.
How I’m fixing it: Going forward, I’m going to do two things to fix this problem: 1) finally investing in a utility cart that can help me carry more groceries at once than my two little arms can manage, and 2) planning ahead for a week at a time. I’ll be living in a big city for the foreseeable future, so I might as well just lean into it and get one of those carts already. For the nights we make dinner with David, I’ll take more care to suggest recipes that utilize some of what I already have.
2. Not checking the spice rack or fridge door inventory before shopping. This is the reason I currently have three bottles of yellow mustard (yes, I have very basic sandwich-mustard tastes) in my refrigerator and multiple containers of cinnamon on the spice rack. I always forget to check and see if we have a few specific things before heading to the store, and then I end up with duplicates. Luckily, these are usually things that won’t expire anytime soon…but it’s still money I didn’t need to spend.
How I’m fixing it: I hope this is as easy as “remember to check the fridge and spice rack before you leave” but time will have to tell. I’m hoping that, by planning my meals out a week ahead of time, I can start getting into the groove of checking inventory on a weekly basis. This should help keep me more on top of what needs to be cleaned out of the fridge, too.
3. Sticking with my original list at the store even when something is super expensive. I have never gone into the store with the intention of buying avocados and left without avocados (unless there were absolutely none that looked good), even when they’ve been listed at $3 a pop. (Manhattan is wild.) I also always get exactly the cheese a recipe calls for rather than looking around for something similar. Do you know how easy it is to rack up a hefty grocery store bill if you’re casually dropping $12 on a block of cheese, and it’s not even for a cheese plate, it’s just for a casserole?
How I’m fixing it: Literally just paying attention to the price of everything before I actually go to ring it up. I could also stand to add prices to my grocery list to give myself an idea of what I’m looking for. I know plenty of people that map out their grocery spending before they hit the store, but I’ve never been one to do this — I tend to pick recipes I simply think will be less expensive to make than others. And sometimes, you just want what you want, and you’re willing to turn the other cheek as you swipe your card to pay for the glaring checkout total. But if I’m not putting together a decadent cheese plate and it’s just a regular week of groceries, I need to keep these “splurge” items to a minimum.
I’ve by no means perfected my grocery-shopping strategy, but I’m working on it — and in the meantime, if you have any tips for me, I’d love to hear them!
Holly is the Managing Editor of The Financial Diet. Follow her on Twitter here, or send her your ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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