15 August 2013

Why We Don't Have The Cheapest Grocery Bill on the Block

Dear Lissy,

There's a LOT of pressure on moms to keep the grocery bill impossibly low.  Because the grocery bill is a variable expense, husbands, friends, popular bloggers, and even our own conscience pushes us to drive the number ever lower.  In our current economy, I've seen numbers as low as $12 per person per week, with $20 being about average for frugal families.  For comparison when you read this letter, the June 2013 USDA Thrifty Food Cost for the individuals in our family is pushing $40 per person per week, with the Liberal plan coming in just under $80 per person per week.

I'm reasonably intelligent, a good cook, and very motivated to save $$$ as a full time mom.  So why are my grocery numbers hovering closer to $30 per person than $20?

  • We've chosen to eat a whole foods diet the majority of the time.  I rarely have more than a couple of coupons a week.
  • We eat fresh fruits and vegetables at every meal and for snacks.
  • We don't buy condiments that contain high fructose corn syrup.  Everything from peanut butter to pickle relish is much cheaper if it contains HFCS.
  • We limit ourselves to 1 serving of carbs per meal.  Carbohydrates are far and away the least expensive foods available.
  • Three of us cannot tolerate legumes, an inexpensive source of protein, so I purchase more eggs and meat than the typical frugal family.
  • Dad's a contractor, and we have two teenaged boys in our family.  Cereal or sandwiches for supper isn't an option.  They need a hot, filling meal every. single. night.
  • We're dairy snobs.  We eat high quality yogurt, real cheese, real butter, real cream in our coffee, and a handful of the Breyer's ice cream flavors. 
  • We don't ever eat out or order takeout as a family unless we get a gift certificate.  Most families eat out (or take out) at least once a week and don't include those $$$ in the grocery budget. 
That list above begs the question:  How do we eat a (primarily)whole foods diet for just $30 per person?
  • I buy seasonal, but not local or organic produce.  The exception is boxes of 2nds and drops from local farms.  If my grocery budget ever increases, I'll be buying the "dirty dozen" organic.
  • I garden (100% organic)
  • I shop the salvage store and buy flours, grains, spices, yeast, and honey bulk at the co-op. 
  • Sadly, we buy cheapo coffee most of the time even though we LOVE good beans.  I use a percolator, so the difference is minimal.
  • I keep a price book and stock up when prices are lowest on staple items.  
  • I cook almost everything from scratch.  I can make a nutritious loaf of bread (all whole wheat, buttermilk, local honey) for less than the cheapest loaf of Wal-Mart brand bread.  Bulk spices are far cheaper than the little jars or packets of pre-mixed spices. Cutting potatoes into french fries or grating cheese saves up to 50% on the cost.
  • We eat hot breakfasts.  A serving of polenta and a hard boiled egg costs about 15 cents.  A bowl of cereal with milk is four times that.  Our usual breakfast of homemade whole grain toast and eggs with coffee is still under 35 cents.
  • We eat simple lunches.  Grilled cheese, PBJ, leftovers -- you get the idea.
  • I prepare vegetables and the starch very simply to keep costs down.  I might roast green beans in a little olive oil with a slivered garlic clove or season a pot of rice with a teaspoon of chicken base.  Salads are in-season veg or fruit and I make homemade dressings. I adore salad and could easily spend a wad on just that one item.
  • We limit snacks to twice a day.  One snack has to be fresh fruit or veg, the other can be a hard cooked egg, popcorn, cheese/pb & crackers , etc.  I don't buy many pre-packaged snack items because they contain white flour, white potatoes, or sugar.
  • I purchase meat in bulk from the butcher.  I get restaurant quality meat for about 25% less than grocery store prices.  Eventually I hope to transition to purchasing half a cow or pig from a farm that grass feeds.
  • I teach (and enforce) serving sizes.  Just because your brother can eat 4 oz of cheese doesn't mean he should.  I taught each of you to use my digital kitchen scale at a very young age.  We eat peanuts or almonds from tiny condiment cups that only hold the correct serving size.
  • We only drink coffee, tea, water and milk.  Our pediatrician has a one-woman vendetta against juice, and we know the dangers of sweetened beverages as anything other than an occasional treat.  
My advice to you is this:  Calculate your family's food cost (based on sex and age of family members) at least once a year using the USDA Thrifty or Low-Cost plan.  That is your minimum food budget.  That number doesn't include toilet paper, shampoo, or laundry soap.  Practice frugality and emphasize nutrition.  Save the extra $$$ and invest them in items that will improve nutrition or allow you to drop costs even further.  Buy a freezer and start pre-buying meat that's properly raised.  Invest in a grain mill and buy good quality, heirloom wheat in bulk.  Improve your garden or buy new gardening tools. Establish a six month pantry of staples. The temptation, especially if you're a stay-at-home mom and money is tight, is to squeak the food budget lower and lower to cover other household needs.  If you have to do that (and we have!) return your budget as quickly as possible to the Thrifty threshold.

Loving you,

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