The Grocery Game [Updated]

Originally published January 13, 2016. Updated July 11, 2018.

From extreme couponing to urban foraging, there are numerous ways to save money on groceries. Just Google it sometime, if you haven’t already. I did, and I found that a good many of the suggested options required a whole lot of effort to see even the most minimal results. Sure there are folks out there who can spend hours sourcing coupons and get an entire cart of groceries for $2. I, on the other hand, could spend hours sourcing coupons just to arrive at the store without them. Or worse, walk out with 3 bags of free mustard.

We play a different kind of grocery game. Simple shopping.

The basics of simple shopping are:

Make a Stock List: The single best way to improve grocery spending is to make a list of your favorite meals and snacks. From this selection of menu options, make a second list of all the ingredients and/or products required to create those meals. Only purchase the items on this list and always keep at least one of each of your most used stock item in your pantry reserves.

Shop Less Often: Keeping extras of your favorite items in the pantry means fewer trips to the store and fewer trips means fewer spending opportunities. Create a schedule for grocery shopping, one that fits the way you like to eat. We like to shop once a week, usually on Friday evening or Saturday morning. During the spring/summer season, we also visit the Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning.

Cut Down on Convenience Foods: In most cases, frozen convenience meals are significantly more expensive than making the same meal from scratch. And let’s face it, scratch meals taste better and are better for you. There is one caveat to this though; it’s not a bad idea to keep a frozen pizza or box of veggie burgers in the freezer for those times when you are just too tired (or too interested in doing something else) to cook.

Forego (Most) Couponing: Coupons often promote spending rather than helping to reduce grocery costs. A lot of coupons are for processed foods and many are offered to encourage you to try new items. Sometimes that new product is great but more often that item will just sit in the cabinet or fridge until it goes bad. By only buying from a list, it’s easier to resist the temptation to use coupons for the latest and greatest new food fad (and it also helps cut down on food waste). That being said, I do spend a few minutes each week checking the digital coupons for Kroger. Occasionally there’s one we can use (usually it’s just the Friday Freebie).

Shop Sales: Grocery stores have sales for a reason – to get you into the store. They know that the majority of folks who come in for those few bargain items will also do the remainder of their shopping there, making up their loss. The real discounts go to those who only buy the bargain items…the bargain items that are on their stock list. To supplement our regular grocery trips (and to pick up items at a better cost), Angie scans the weekly ads from Food Lion and Kroger. If an item that we have on our list is on sale at a greater savings than ALDI, then we’ll get it. If the item can be stored, we’ll get several of them.

Make it Fun: Grocery shopping really can be fun and there are a lot of different strategies to make it so. Set a target goal – like $50 – and see if you can get all the items on your list for that amount. Wager with your significant other (or child) to see who can find the best overall deal. Loser makes dinner. There are even a few side hustles that will pay you to mystery shop your favorite grocery store and last year, we discovered the Shopkick app, which is a great way to earn gift cards just by scanning items as you walk the grocery aisles.

Food & Finance

I received my W-2 statement in the mail today. After taxes, insurance, and other standard deductions, I brought home $26,632.12 in 2017. When you add in our side hustles ($1161.58), our total income for the year was $27,793.70. I mention this for two reasons. One, so I can marvel for a brief moment at the sheer awesomeness of living simply. If you had told me a decade ago that I would be living successfully on less than half of my then income…on purpose…and loving it…I would have called you crazy. The bank holding the note to my SUV, my suburban townhouse, and my camping trailer would have concurred. Today, looking at that W-2, I feel proud. I feel accomplished. I feel good about choosing time over money and I wouldn’t go back for every dollar in the world.

But…that’s not the only reason I mentioned our income. I wanted to use it as a real world example for today’s post on food waste.

Over the weekend, we watched the documentary film, Dive! If you substituted Angie and me for the folks making the film, this could have very easily been the story of our lives – minus all the meat. Everything they found – right down to the limes – is stuff we find in our own dumpster all the time. Blueberries, strawberries, bread, eggs…you name it, we find it. More than just the fact that we had similar dumpsters, what really stood out to me was that this film and their attempt to improve food waste conditions in CA was made in 2009 and yet here we are, nearly a decade later and 2,031 miles away, living the same story.

In the film, Jeremy Seifert makes a very valid point – Americans spend so little of their income on food that it has essentially lost it’s value. When we don’t value something, we have no qualms about throwing it in the trash.

At the time the film was made, Americans spent 16% of their income on food every year. Currently, we spend 6.4%; less than any other country in the world.

And still, we waste more than 1/3 of that.

Why? Because the scale of our personal economic impact is so small it doesn’t matter.

Let’s do the math. 6.4% of our income essentially means that 6 cents out of every dollar is designated for food. If we waste 1/3 of the food we buy, that’s 2 of those 6 cents. In reality, how much do we care about 2 cents? If the number of pennies that I find on the ground just walking into the grocery store is any indicator, then I’d say not much. But pennies don’t tell the whole story.

People don’t set out to waste food. We have every intention of eating what we buy but then life gets in the way. The apples rot before we get around to making that pie. The meat goes bad when plans change and we forget to freeze it. Or we get tired, bored, or disgusted with something before we finish it. And we throw it away because…it’s easy…it’s cheap…it’s not going to make a difference. Or is it?

Let’s try that math again. 6.4% of our income in 2017 would have been $1,779. In actuality, Angie and I spent more than double that amount on food last year, approximately 13% of our income (or $3,661.81). If we were “average”, $1,208 of that would have gone into the garbage as food waste. And that’s certainly not pocket change!

Perhaps you’ve been thinking about ways to improve your own financial situation this year. Skipping your morning coffee might put $500 back in your pocket for the year. Cutting cable will give you another $960. Heck, switching to Geico could save you 15% on car insurance (or so they say). But one of the easiest and most overlooked ways to start saving – simply reduce your food waste. Pennies do add up to dollars.

I don’t know about you but I’m not a fan of tossing money in the trash!


Food Waste Update

  • Wasted Food this week: 0
  • Total Wasted Food in 2018: 3 ounces
  • Found Food this week: 10 US pounds
  • Total Found Food this year: 43.75 US pounds

Keep up with our food finds in real time by viewing our Food Find Gallery.