Frugality 101: Meal Planning and Grocery Shopping

Meal Planning Post PicHello, Readers!  We all want to save a buck or two, and there are thousands of articles out there that aim to teach you ways to do just that.  In almost every list of ways to save money, meal planning/eating at home is always listed close to the top of the list.  Why?  Because it can be a money saver!

I have found, however, that some people don’t do it because they just don’t know how to get started.  Often when people hear of my meal planning, they tell me that they wish they could do that but they just choose what to cook on that set day.  I, myself, have found, however, that when I don’t plan out my meals for the week our grocery bill is atrociously higher and our cart is full of junk that never gets eaten or spoils before we get to it.

On the other side, however, I have found that even a seasoned meal planner such as myself has gotten stuck in a rut when reading about saving money by planning meals.  I’ll read that point and think ‘So?  Isn’t there more to it than just planning in order to save money?’ I think I feel this way because meal planning has been a part of my life since I graduated with my BA.  I even did it during grad school.  Since then, however, I have found ways to cut back on my grocery expenses, which I’ll explain as I walk you through my meal planning and grocery shopping process.

Once a week, typically on Fridays, I will start my process on the back of the previous week’s grocery list, which I keep in the same notebook for convenience.  On the back, I list the days of the week for the following week, starting with Sunday, and I list our protein options at the top of the page: beef, pork, poultry, fish, shellfish, and veggie.  My husband Ryan does not like chicken, so I substitute turkey products for chicken ones in recipes, even though it’s more expensive of a cut (more on that later).  After listing the days and meats, I refer to my calendar to see if there are any events coming up that week that will keep us from the house.  As can be seen, my mom is in town on Thursday, so I start by listing that on my trial meal plan.  We always do dinner with my in-laws on Sunday, which is convenient because we do our shopping on Mondays due to Ryan’s work schedule.  So, on the list that goes.  As a result, I only have five dinners to plan for, which makes my job easier.

I also start with Friday’s dinner because I always do a fish dish those nights.  Although I have salmon in my freezer (we buy large packs of filets every six weeks or so when they go on sale), halibut is on sale this week at the store, and we have had salmon for three weeks in a row (not to mention that my in-laws recently returned from a fishing trip in Canada and brought back tons of fresh salmon, so many of our meals with them have featured salmon).  I thought it would be nice to have something different this week, so I plan on making Fish n Chips for dinner, and to make it healthier I’m making my baked zucchini sticks instead of fries.

After planning out Friday’s dinner, I start planning out the rest of the week.  While planning, I look in my freezer for what proteins I already have on hand.  I also constantly refer to the weekly ad for our local store (SaveMart) to see what they have on sale for the week in order to keep our expenses down.  I also refer to my shopping master list, which tells me what produce and goods are on sale for the month in order to plan better.  As I check this out, my meal plan forms until the entire week is completed.  After this, I transfer my trial planning to my meal plan refrigerator pad.  I picked this up at Cost Plus/World Market for about $20, and I have not regretted it.  I use it every week, without fail, and Ryan will refer to it every day while packing his lunch for work to see what I have planned out.  It helps us out because he knows to grab the leftovers I have listed or leave them if I have other plans for them, which helps us save money by using everything up before it goes bad.

And then it’s time for my grocery list, which I break down based on the location of items within the store, which makes it easier to remember everything.  Even if I might have something, I will list it on my grocery list to keep track of what might need to be purchased for the next time.  I’ll mark next to the item that we already have it and its location in the home so I know we have that and that I have already looked for it before we go shopping.

While shopping, we stick to our list as much as possible.  However, we often find out about good deals on meat cuts when we get to the store, and that’s where my plans to list everything comes from.  If I see that I need ground turkey, for instance, and I see that I can get some on sale, then I’ll pick it up to replace what I have in the freezer for the next time.  We started doing this a few months ago, and since then we have found that we rarely pay full price for our meat cuts.

Another way I save money on my groceries each week is by buying frozen veggies, especially if they are on sale.  Many people may not know this, but March is Frozen Foods Month, and typically you can find bags of frozen veggies for a third of their original cost.  And, honestly, we prefer to buy our broccoli, green beans, and cauliflower in frozen bags.  They are typically frozen at their peak, locking in nutrients.  They are typically prepared, which is quite convenient for cooking purposes.  And they are typically close in price to fresh produce, which means there is little difference between fresh and frozen.  Whenever we go shopping, I check to see if green beans, broccoli, or cauliflower are on sale in the frozen foods section.  I love having these available at home in case I need a veggie option to add to my meal.  We love green beans, especially, and they have become a family staple.

Now, certain items are always on our list.  Things like bread and eggs are staples, and I get them every week.  We also use real butter (salted and unsalted) for our everyday use.  However, I almost always buy pounds of it on sale whenever I see a good deal.  About a month ago, Challenge Butter was on sale for $4.00 per pound, which is almost half the cost of it at full price.  I picked up roughly ten pounds of butter at the time and I stuck it in our freezer, where it will keep for up to six months.  Butter can go on sale for very low costs every few months, so keep your eyes glued to the weekly ads for sales and price check when you go to the store to see if it’s a good price or not.

Finally, we do deviate from the Dave Ramsey plan a little with our grocery shopping by using a credit card.  We have one card in Ryan’s name from our bank that offers a three percent cash back reward every time we buy groceries on the card.  While we allocate funds for our groceries each week, we purchase them on the card and pay it off each week without paying any interest.  It’s the only time the card is used, and it has rewarded us over $100 in the last year.  While it seems like a small amount, it’s convenient for us and makes good use of our money.  However, we always pay it off at the end of each week (or on payday biweekly), and our one rule about it is that if we ever pay interest due to an inconvenient incident or because we are out of funds in our account, the card will be closed and cut up immediately.  But we have not had any issues with it, and it’s the only reason why we have our card.

Lastly, we are members of our store’s rewards program, but we prefer their program to other programs.  My sister loves her Smith’s Member Rewards program, which rewards her with fuel discounts (convenient when they have a V8 truck) as well as discounted prices on groceries, but our local Smith’s location is across the city from our own home.  SaveMart, however, has a location near our home, and the prices are competitive with Wal-Mart while the produce tends to be of higher quality and locally grown (from Northern California).  SaveMart’s prices are the same, even for members, but the card is attached to our virtual coupons offered by the store.  This means that we can browse the coupons, select which ones we may use, and forget about them.  Every time we use our number, the system automatically corresponds our coupons to any products that are included in our coupons.  This also means that it accepts multiple uses of the same coupon, since the system relies on the expiration date and doesn’t remove the coupon until its expiration date, and it can be doubled up, since it treats the coupons online as discounts rather than just coupons.  We also earn points toward cash discounts or other convenient discounts over time, which means we can save even more money on groceries.  In all, we are able to save roughly $50 per weekly shopping trip with all of our discounts, cash rewards, coupons, and careful planning.

So, readers, how do you save money on groceries?  And on your meal planning, what tips can you offer that help you save money in the kitchen?

Until next time,

-BBM

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