Beat Down That Grocery Bill!

The holidays are coming upon us quickly, and we’re all looking at the budget! Contributor Kathy Harrison has some suggestions to trim costs at the grocery store. –Editor

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I was talking with a group of friends this week and the subject of food shopping came up. No surprise as the cost of filling a grocery cart is going up at an alarming rate and many people are looking for ways to reduce their grocery bills.

One thing that occurred to me is that when talking about groceries we were often comparing apples to oranges. Most people buy a lot more than fruits and vegetables at the grocery store. Do you count the cost of pet food? How about paper products? What do you do about the amount you spend on take-out food or dinners out or shared with family members? If you have a garden, do you compute the expenditures for canning jars and soil amendments? It’s a bit more complicated that it would first appear.

When I started to seriously look at my grocery budget the first thing I thought about was what it was worth to me to reduce my spending. If I had to get a job to earn three thousand dollars I would have to consider the costs of childcare, transportation and taxes as well as the inconvenience of being away from home. If I could “earn” that money by not spending it the savings would be multiplied. That gave me the incentive to do the work to cut my spending.

I first separated my groceries into categories: Food, Personal Care, Paper Products, Pet Care, and Cleaning Supplies. For a bunch of complicated reasons, my garden costs are not included as I found that they amortize to a negligible amount over the life of things like tools and soil amendments. For each category I asked several questions.

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Can I do without this? For things like paper towels and napkins, the answer was yes. I replaced my disposables with cloth. Can I make a version at home that will meet my needs? For most convenience foods, this led to another yes. Instant anything usually has a home-made recipe that works just as well, tastes better and has no added ingredients that aren’t good for you. I started making my own instant oatmeal and now have the quick breakfast for a fraction of the cost.

Can I purchase this in bulk? Flour, salt, sugar, vinegar, all are much cheaper in large sizes. There is less packaging and fewer trips to the market for the forgotten necessity.

Can I replace this with something cheaper? I love a good cup of coffee. I really love it with cream and sugar. I finally had to admit that I didn’t need the calories, the caffeine or the expense of imported coffee. I switched to herbal tea from my own garden for my everyday drink and have coffee as the rare treat. I do miss coffee but when I have a cup it is such a luxury. I know I enjoy it more now that I have it far less often.

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Can I make a substitute? For most cleaning supplies and personal care items I am sure you can. Vinegar, baking soda and a mild soap are all that is needed to clean most things. I make my own detergent and dish soap. I love not shoving all that plastic into the recycle bin each week.

Can I get this locally? For meat and milk and anything else I don’t grow I can usually source it locally. It isn’t necessarily less expensive but I would rather use less meat and know it was ethically raised and processed.

Can I barter for that? Sometimes yes and sometimes no but it never hurts to ask. Can I forage it? For apples and grapes, mushrooms and spring greens, Foraging adds a good deal of food to my pantry. Can I get this in bulk when it’s in season and preserve it for later use? Potatoes in a 50 pound sack can be bought from a farm stand or a farm and stored in a root cellar. A win for a farmer and a win for you.

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Can I get this cheaper from another source? I almost never buy toothpaste or deodorant from the supermarket. It makes a lot more sense to get 24 tubes of toothpaste when it’s on sale at the pharmacy and pack it away for my year’s supply. Is it available on-line or in a catalog? It takes some research but I have gotten some great deals this way and there are a good many things that are only available this way.

I will admit that I have turned my shopping into a pleasant hobby. It’s like going on a treasure hunt. The real reward is knowing that without leaving home for a paying job, I can still contribute to my family’s bottom line, feed them better, healthier food and do my part to keep packaging out of the waste stream.

Kathy Harrison

About Kathy Harrison

Kathy Harrison is the author of Just in Case, Another Place at the Table, and One Small Boat. She is a national spokesperson for both foster parenting and family preparedness and has appeared on The Today Show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and National Public Radio. She lives with her family in western Massachusetts.