We do not take extensive inventory of the fridge or the cupboards before heading out, and we certainly do not go in with shopping lists. We practice lazy, but frugal, grocery shopping. On a typical month, we spend right around $300/mo on groceries, and when we used to really cut back, we spent slightly over $200/mo on groceries for the two of us. For context, the USDA “Thrifty” food plan for a two adult family is $386.40 as of April 2016.
We eat a mostly vegetarian diet (with fish about once a month), and we plan meals around vegetables. Some omnivore or carnivore friends may not understand this, but it’s actually quite effortless when you’re used to it. We will have some frozen veggies in the freezer for backup or lazy cooking, but the majority we buy are fresh.
Our go-to meals are stir fried vegetables with rice, or curry with rice, which also tend to be quick to prepare. As sides, we might have a kale salad or cucumber salad for something light and zesty. Breakfasts are typically something egg-centric like a homemade breakfast burrito or egg and toast. We try to have the trifecta of cheap, tasty, and at least reasonably healthy.
You could easily include meat without going too crazy in terms of monthly costs (say, maybe $86 to get up to the “Thrifty Plan” level), though it might be an interesting experiment to forgo meat for a month just for fun (or are frugal experiments only fun for nerds like us?).
We’re not going to tell you a vegetarian or vegan diet is the best for people, it’s just what we’ve gravitated to due to personal tastes. One thing to keep in mind is that vitamin B-12 is difficult to obtain without meat products. We take a daily supplement to keep our levels up.
The “Good Deal” Guideline / Flexible Cooking
We technically receive a weekly grocery flyer from each nearby grocery store, but we mostly skim and forget. What we find is easier is to be just a little more cognizant of prices and establish guidelines. For fruits and veggies, $1/lb is our “good deal” guideline.
Stretch produce, like berries, are a little more expensive and they have their own pricing patterns. A common addition to our refrigerator are red peppers. Their “good deal” is around $1.50-1.79/lb, and they just taste so much better than green peppers. I am a red pepper convert – they are worth it.
Since we do not go into the store with list, we buy produce and other groceries when the “good deal” guideline is met. This week, green beans were on sale for $1/lb, and broccoli for $1.29/lb. The kale was $2/bunch, and the bunches were small this week, so we said no to kale. Cantaloupe for $2 a piece meant we will definitely be having some melon in the next few days. It can be hard to keep track of what is in season, so we just don’t.
When we started analyzing our grocery spending, we tracked and categorized everything we spent for about a month, to see how we were spending our money. The chart below is actually from a couple years ago (with ~5 weeks groceries represented), so we will likely track grocery spending like this again in the near future to reevaluate.
To get a really good grasp of average spending, you would have to do this for a few months. In this example month, we spent quite a bit on spices but didn’t have a need to buy any oil, for instance.
In order to shop this way, you have to be able to cook this way. If you want to get to the point where you can whip up delicious dishes with any random assortment of ingredients like Fergus, rent cooking books like Perfect Vegetables from the library or get inspiration from from sites like Budget Bytes or The Kitchn. If you learn how different ingredients can be cooked and what complements them, you start to have an innate understanding of how to cook delicious dishes.
Once a Week Shopping, at One Store
One tenet of our lazy shopping creed is only shopping once a week, most weeks. This serves two purposes (besides saving money in gas), the first saving time. One trip a week means only one out of the way drive. The second purpose is to effortlessly cut back on unnecessary purchases. I mean, how tempting is that bag of chips or that box of cookies? You might be tempted enough to buy it, but would you be tempted enough to buy multiple in a single trip?
Since we eat a lot of fresh produce, we tend to get a mix of hardiness. Some produce lasts longer, such as root vegetables or squash, whereas your delicate leafy greens or green beans need to be eaten within a few days. Produce lifespan depends on storage methods and initial quality, as well. Kale is often in our cart, and some weeks it is so crispy and perfect at the store, while other weeks it’s already getting soft while on display.
For general guides to produce durability, check out this printable guide from Oh My Veggies and this more academic article that can be summed up as “pre-cut produce spoils quicker, thick skins == hardy, and some produce needs to breathe.” You can also cook produce on the edge of edible with leftovers in mind, or in some cases freeze it. Frozen banana “ice cream,” for instance, is not bad at all. Some produce like lettuce is not going to freeze well, but you might be surprised by how many perishable goods can be frozen. Either google “freezing [item you want to freeze]” or check the frozen food food aisle for an idea of what freezes well.
Now, when we say “shopping,” we include household items like deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, soap, and cleaning supplies. Once upon a time, we had a warehouse club membership, but we were unimpressed. The food prices were mostly the same as at our local grocery store, and for everything else…let’s just say we regret buying a lot of things in bulk.
For one, there’s a storage issue. It’s simply hard to have a place for everything when cabinets are a limited size and every item is gigantic. Even if they do not take up a lot of space, they can still cause clutter and even be forgotten. Case in point: We have 11 60W compact flourescent bulbs, bought in bulk at a warehouse store. Do you know how long it takes for one to break? We don’t, as we haven’t had to use a single replacement bulb for over two years.
Saying “Yes” (But Mostly “No”)
Do we hold ourselves back from purchases? All the time, and without much effort at all. Do we ever treat ourselves? Of course! You are talking to the money-conscious people who still went to a ridiculously expensive all you can eat chocolate buffet. Most of the time we go shopping, we’ll pick up a couple treats. This might be frozen pizza for a “I don’t want to cook anything” night or other processed goodies like limited edition Oreos (In case you’re wondering, the Cinnamon Bun Oreos are pretty darn good, and thankfully not as sweet as the red velvet ones). Oftentimes a treat is a fancy or exotic vegetable we’ve always wanted to try (fiddlehead ferns stick out in my mine), or even a favorite fruit like mangoes.
We have a baseline for groceries, and anything above that is extra, a treat. By being aware of our spending and classifying strawberries as treats, every single week we’re treating ourselves. We just don’t say “yes” enough to raise our baseline. Red peppers are great, and we get excited when we see them on sale. If we bought them every week, we wouldn’t get that same joy.
Sometimes we break these rules. If we’re preparing for a Thanksgiving meal, of course we go back to the store because we forgot some crucial seasoning. We also happen to live by a couple smaller ethnic grocery stores that are fantastic for spices or fresh feta, and of course we’ll stop by on a walk with Fluffster. The most important tenet is to be mindful of your spending, budget (if applicable), and needs.
In the past five years, we’ve spent between $180-$430 a month on groceries. The difference between $180 and $300 per month is huge. $180/mo is definitely constricting, and you have to be very conscious about spending. By contrast, $300/mo feels very similar to $430/mo, with the biggest difference being decreased food waste and less processed food.
In addition, that $430/mo grocery spend correlated to a similar restaurant spend. With a grocery savings of $130 and a restaurant savings of $300 per month, that’s $5,160 per year we’re now not spending, without missing anything. That is enough money to have an extravagant international vacation every year, or enough savings by itself to fund half of the median retirement account (assuming 30 years compound interest at 4% average real rate of return).