Saturday, January 11, 2014

How to save money on groceries

I'm a foodie so it's easy for me to spend way too much money on food. And that's exactly what I did when we moved to Auckland last year.

I didn't sit down and work out a grocery budget that fit with our new living expenses. Instead I just bought at will and at random. Things got a little out of hand so I've had to get myself back on track with a proper grocery budget.

It's working really well. Even over the Christmas period we spent a lot less than we had been, simply because I was more focused on where our grocery money was going.

Here are my tips for saving money on your groceries:

1. Set a budget
Your grocery budget can be whatever you want it to be, but you do need to set one and you do need to make sure it leaves room for the rest of your living expenses.

For our overall budget I've got a simple spreadsheet where I list line-by-line everything we need to spend money on - rent, water, power, insurance, groceries, petrol, car maintenance, contact lenses, dentist and doctor, giving, savings accounts for the kids, etc, etc, etc.

I've totalled it up and made sure it doesn't come to more than our income.

2. Stick to your budget
If you buy groceries with the same cashpoint or credit card you use for everything else, it will be easy to overspend, especially if you're buying groceries from multiple places on different days of the week.

There are different ways to ensure you stick to your grocery budget. A lot of people swear by the envelope system, where they withdraw all their grocery money for the week/fortnight/month and stick it into an envelope. They only purchase their groceries with that money and, once it's gone, it's gone.

Because I buy the majority or our groceries online using my credit card, we are trialling a system where we only use the credit card for groceries and automatically transfer the grocery money into that account weekly.

Doing my grocery shopping online also helps me stick to the budget because I can see my running total as I add things to the shopping basket - and take things out again if I'm going over. Shopping online is also great for being able to compare prices and make sure I'm getting the best deal per gram/ml/tissue...what have you.

3. Set aside some of your grocery money for bulk purchases
Try to spend less than you have allocated to your grocery budget each week so that you can save up for those bulk purchases that will save you money in the long run.

For example, we plan to buy a 1/4 cow every year for around NZD$400, so I know I need to save $7.70 each week to save up for that. I also buy other things in bulk from time to time, so I now set aside money for those too.

Using our new credit card method, I should easily be able to see what our surplus is because it will be whatever extra cash we have sitting in the credit card account.

4. Shop regularly and less often
Try to have a set day of the week or fortnight when you shop, and stick to it.

We used to just pop out to the supermarket whenever we ran low on staples like bread, milk or apples. Now I have my set grocery day each week and we make our groceries last till then. If we run out of something before grocery day, we eat something else.

This saves us money in two ways:
  • Firstly we're less likely to make other impulse purchases while shopping; 
  • Secondly we get more creative with the food we have at home and don't end up wasting as much. Leftovers get eaten. Slightly bruised fruit gets the bruises cut out so we can eat the rest. Bread gets frozen and toasted instead of made into fresh sandwiches. And so on...

5. Shop from a list
Have a basic list of things you always want to keep on hand - fruit, vegetables, baking ingredients, smoothie ingredients, meal ingredients for your seven favourite meals (a week's worth), cleaning products, toilet paper, etc.

Through the week, take note of the things you're running low on so you can replace them at your next shop. (I keep a running grocery list on the Notes app on my iPhone since it's usually near me and I always take it shopping.)

My friend, Alison, has her generic shopping list priced out, printed and laminated. She uses a whiteboard marker to circle the items she needs to purchase each week and takes the list to the supermarket. Before she even gets to the supermarket she knows how much she expects to spend because she totals up the prices of her circled items.

If you notice a grocery item running low in your house, but don't think it will run out in the next couple of weeks, add it to your shopping list anyway but put a * next to it. When you do your grocery shop, check whether the item is on special and if it's not, don't get it. Instead, wait till next week and check again. It's likely to come up on special sooner or later, and if you're aware to keep checking for it, you can nab it at the better price.

6. Know your kitchen
Keep track of the food you already have in your pantry, fridge and freezer.

Try to come up with meal ideas that use what you already have, so that food doesn't go bad before you get a chance to use it.

Some people keep a list of food items on their freezer and then check off when they've used something up. I keep track of our freezer, fridge and pantry items with a spreadsheet. It's not a perfect system as I don't update it all the time, but it's better than nothing. I do a complete stocktake from time to time, when I feel like I'm losing track of what we have on hand.

7. Menu plan
Menu planning can be as simple or complex as you need.

These days I only tend to plan one day in advance. I've tried weekly menu planning lots over the years but always find I stray from the plan after a couple of days, so now I don't bother.

As long as I've thought about what to make for breakfast and dinner the night before, and got out the necessary ingredients to thaw, I'm good to go.

When I'm making my shopping list, I try to think of at least two dinners that I could make the coming week and ensure I have all the ingredients for those two meals either at home or on my shopping list. We also have a pretty standard list of things we buy for breakfasts and lunches, and that list doesn't change much from week to week.

This seems to be enough planning for us while our kids are young and don't eat much at mealtimes. We often have leftovers that can get turned into another meal and I sometimes see a recipe on a blog that I want to try so like to have the freedom to experiment in the kitchen as I like.

8. Get creative with leftovers
Before you chuck food out, think, can I use this for anything else?

I've said it before, but bones and vegetable scraps can be turned into the most beautiful stock, which will then impart flavour and nutrition to many more meals.

Leftover cooked vegetables can go into soups and casseroles.

Partly eaten fruit can be chopped up and served again, or cooked or used in baking. Sophie loves bananas, but doesn't often finish them so I've invented a quick single-muffin recipe that uses a bite of banana for flavour and sweetness. I quite look forward to her not finishing her bananas now.

Even the skin of citrus fruit can be zested and the zest frozen for smoothies or baking.

If you have dinner leftovers, freeze them to pull out for a quick lunch or dinner on busy days. Lots of meals can be frozen - rice, soups, casseroles, Asian mince on rice, Kai Si Ming are especially good and easy to reheat in a pot on the stove. Just make sure you label everything, because it all starts to look the same once it's in the freezer.

9. Grow what you can
Even a few pots of herbs and lettuce will save you money and give you beautiful fresh ingredients to use in your meals.

The more space you can devote to a home garden, the better. You will save money and get to eat fresh produce at its peak.

More and more people are keeping chickens these days in urban gardens to provide free range eggs. If you've got the room, this is another great option.

10. Know a good price when you see it (and stock up)
Notice how much things cost. Keep a mental or physical price book of your preferred grocery items. The goal is for you to know when something is at its rock-bottom price so you stock up on it then and get enough to last you until the next time it hits its rock bottom price.

If you mostly buy things at their rock bottom price, you will be able to buy more of the things you love, for less money. This may mean having a temporary surplus of some foods in your home, but as long as that food is not going to go off, that's absolutely fine.

We recently stocked up on beef. We were able to fill our freezer with a quarter of a cow that my sister and her husband raised on their farmlet. Although it cost us more upfront to do this, we will end up saving a lot of money because we get all cuts of the best quality, pastured meat for the same price as the rock bottom supermarket meat price. I'm now saving up my grocery surplus for our next big bulk purchase like this.

If you buy, grow or get given more produce than you can use at once, learn how to preserve it for the coming months. Lots of vegetables can be canned or blanched and frozen in ziploc bags. Fruit can be canned, frozen or dehydrated. Get super healthy and ferment your vegetables to make beautiful sauerkrauts or salsas that will impart your body with life-giving enzymes. It's easier than you'd think.

11. Shop outside the square (and by square I mean supermarket)
These days you can buy food from so many different places. You're not limited to your local supermarket. Here are some good places to try:

a) Online
I often buy specialty items online because I can get them cheaper than at the supermarket. Since starting Trim Healthy Mama, I've bought nut flours from The Nut House, ground golden flaxseed, stevia and erythritol from iherb, whey protein isolate from Evolv Supplements and so on. The delivery cost is often waived on larger purchases and things arrive pretty quickly.

b) Direct from wholesaler
Chantal allows regular consumers to sign up as members and order organic items direct. This works out a lot cheaper than buying organic food through a store.

c) Farmers' markets
Get freshly picked produce from the people who grew it and cut out the middle man (which means you don't have to pay for the middle man).

d) Asian and Indian stores
Many specialty ingredients, herbs and spices can be bought a lot cheaper at Asian supermarkets than in the international aisle of the supermarket.

e) Direct from farmers and orchards
  • Find out about buying raw milk direct from a local farmer. 
  • Ask around and find a hobby farmer who could sell you some of their home kill meat. 
  • Summertime is the perfect time to pick your own berries.
  • Stop at fruit stalls on the side of the road as you drive through the country.
f) Barter
You can barter anything for anything. Think labour, produce from your garden, crafts... Money doesn't have to swap hands so your grocery budget can stay as streamlined as an Olympic swimmer.

12. Learn how to make things yourself (for a fraction of the cost)
In this Internet age, you can find online tutorials for making just about anything. Use that to your advantage and learn how to make grocery items yourself for a lot less than you will buy them at the store.

For example, when I first started Trim Healthy Mama I bought my cartons of almond milk from the supermarket for about $5 a pop. Then I read this tutorial on how to make almond milk and decided to give it a go. I have been amazed at how much money I have saved doing this. One $10 bag of almonds makes so many bottles of almond milk. I wish I had kept track of just how many so I could give you an exact figure. It's a lot though. And better yet, I use the leftover almond pulp to make muffins, so nothing is wasted and I save money on almond flour too.

Other grocery items you can easily make yourself are yoghurt, pesto, bone broth, cooked beans, nut butters, pasta saucesspice mixeskefir and cleaning products. So get imaginative, and get typing for How To's in Google.

13. Buy reusable instead of disposable
Every now and then take a look at the disposable things you're buying from the store and ask yourself whether any of them can be replaced with a reusable item.

Two examples from our home:

  1. Every few weeks I was buying a new pack of paper cupcake patties for my THM muffins. When I saw a set of 12 silicone muffin patties at a discount store, I bought them to use to line my muffin tins instead. That set of 12 should last me indefinitely, so I'll never need to buy cupcake patties again (except for the odd birthday party).
  2. When I started tracking our grocery budget again, I was shocked at how much we were spending on disposable nappies. That promptly motivated me to pull out the cloth diapers, so now I'm full swing back into cloth diapering James. It is incredible how much money I'm saving using cloth nappies instead of disposables. I feel so happy hanging freshly washed nappies on the line all the while thinking about how much money I'm saving for other yummy treats.
14. Save the expensive ingredients for garnishes
Look at how much different things costs and decide to use the expensive ingredients for garnish only.

Protein is usually the most expensive ingredient. Nuts, for example, can be pricy so just chop a few cashews and sprinkle them on top of a stir-fry, instead of mixing a whole lot through.

Here in New Zealand, free range chicken is pretty pricy so I only use a little bit of it in chicken meals, like one breast for the whole family to share, or a whole roast split over several meals. Once again, get creative. You don't have to use things in the quantities they come packaged in.

What do you do to save  money on your groceries?

This post is linked to Simple Life Sunday.


  1. Thanks for your tips! Wish it was as easy to buy in bulk and at source in Sydney.

  2. This is so informative. Great to reconnect to what I used to do. It is harder with a teenage family all on different schedules. But this proves what can be done!

  3. This is a reminder of our I lived my life while raising a young family. Increased income and grown up children has allowed me to be less vigilant, but I have a serious saving goal to reach so think I will revisit the recommendations you are making. I'm sure I will have success especially now that on-line shopping is available

    1. All the best for your efforts Louise! It definitely helps to have a savings goal in mind, otherwise you can feel like you're scrimping for no reason. :)

  4. I find I have to be careful with stocking up on things when the price reaches rock bottom because depending on what the thing is, having more of it in the house may lead to using more of it than we would otherwise. Having a whole lot of washing powder in the house doesn't tempt us to use more of it than usual, chocolate, however, is another matter.

    1. That is so true. I've never managed to stock up on chocolate. Though I've tried so many times

  5. Awesome post - some things I am already doing, but there are other fantastic ideas that I need to seriously look into implementing, as our budget desperately needs to be tightened up!

  6. Hey, great tips. Any chance you know where can I click to find out about buying raw milk and eggs from local farmers in Auckland area?

  7. Hey, great tips. Any chance you know where can I click to find out about buying raw milk and eggs from local farmers in Auckland area?


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