Frugal Habits

Thursday, March 8, 2012

There was an article in Wednesday’s N&O called “Cheaponomics: Lessons for the Home Cook from High School Culinary Teachers,” with tips from teachers in high school culinary arts programs, who have severely limited budgets to work with, about how to save money shopping. I always find those kinds of articles interesting because it feels like half the time they are rules that I don’t follow — and that I may not even agree with — and it would be hard for anyone to argue that I’m not frugal. So for this one, I decided to do a yes/no breakdown with my thoughts.

Here goes.

10 Frugal Habits

1. Plan your weekly meals and shop from a list. If you visit the supermarket only once a week, you’ll save both time and money, and you’ll avoid expensive impulse buys.

NO!

I hate this piece of advice and I give this one a resounding — RESOUNDING — no. A thousand times no. I do not do this, and once I stopped trying to do it, my grocery bill plummeted.

Here’s why.

I cannot plan meals a week in advance because it is extremely unlikely that what I decided on Saturday that I was going to eat on Thursday will match what I actually feel like eating on Thursday. If I don’t feel like eating something I won’t. Or I’ll eat it but not be happy about it.

I really like food, I like cooking, I like eating. Planning meals a week in advance and working from a list takes something I enjoy — something that is a nice break from the endless frustration and tedium that is my pathetic day-to-day existence and that gives me great pleasure — and turns it into drudgery. I don’t want to do it, and I won’t.

When I used to buy a week’s worth of groceries at a time, I would end up wasting a lot of food, because I would project what I needed for the week, but then one day I would have a late lunch and one day I would get stuck at work so I would come home late and eat cereal and one day I would go out for drinks after work and eat while I was out, and I would never fix everything I thought I might fix when I was buying groceries, and things would go bad I would have to throw them away.

This problem was solved for me when I stopped trying to think too far ahead and instead started shopping for just a few days at a time.

I discovered that if I bought food for the next two or three days, I would actually end up with food to last four or five days. I would make sure I had on hand staples that I could always make a meal out of — pasta, canned tomatoes, rice, beans, potatoes, eggs, baking supplies (flour, cornmeal, oats, sugar, baking powder, salt), tortillas, cheese, carrots, frozen vegetables — so even if things got disrupted and I wasn’t able to make it to the store for an extended period, I’d still be able to fix passable meals.

I am always astounded — astounded — at the volume of food people in this country have in their houses. I swear that most people could eat for months without buying anything (which is one of the reasons I like the Eating Down the Fridge projects so much).

A lot of people I’ve talked to say they really hate shopping, they don’t want to have to do it more often, but shopping every few days is qualitatively different from shopping for the whole week. When you’re shopping for the week (or, god forbid, the month, like the registered trademark America’s Cheapest Family who seem to have turned their lifestyle into their entire life, which just feels really weird to me), you need to try to think of everything you might need, or might run out of, or might want, so you go up and down every aisle looking at every item and putting things in your cart. It takes a long time, and it can be exhausting. And you end up putting a lot of things in your cart that you probably aren’t actually going to use this week.

When you shop for the next few days, you don’t have to go up and down every aisle, and you don’t really have to think about much. You look at the list of things you need right now — ingredients you need for tonight’s dinner that you don’t already have at home, pantry/freezer staples that you’re out of, fresh fruit and vegetables — and get just those things, then leave. The trip is much, much faster, and much less mentally taxing, than a standard weekly shopping trip.

Impulse buys were never much of a problem for me but now they’re definitely not a problem because I pay for my groceries with cash and I have to make a certain amount of cash last for a certain amount of time. Also I feel like frequent shopping reduces the lure of many things. When you know you’ll be back soon, it’s easier to say, “Hmm, I kind of want that but I’m not going to get it now; if I still want it the next time I’m here, I can get it.” And then you’ll be back in two or three days and if you still want it, you should get it. But usually you don’t.

So that one gets a big fat No all the way around.

2. Adjust the items on your list to what’s on sale.

Qualified yes.

I heard a great quote the other day that went something like, “An elephant for fifty cents is only a good deal if you need an elephant and if you have fifty cents.”

Don’t buy things you or your family won’t eat just because they’re on sale.

However I do recommend not being too tied down to your grocery list and working with what’s on special. Instead of saying “apples” just say “fruit” — maybe pears are cheaper, or look better. Or maybe cauliflower, which is usually $3.50 or $4.00 a head is on special for $2. You weren’t planning on getting cauliflower, but you have that cauliflower and pasta dish you like so you decide to get what you need for that instead of what you were planning on making for tonight.

3. Be flexible about brands. Be willing to substitute a brand that’s on sale or try store brands, which may be close to brand-name products in quality.

Yes.

I would qualify that to say that you should be willing to try different brands, and if you can tell the difference, decide what it’s worth to you to have the one you like more.

For instance, I prefer Tropicana orange juice (well actually, I prefer fresh-squeezed orange juice, but I don’t usually have enough oranges on hand to make it; one of the problems with walking to the grocery store and spending $12 at a time is that some things are really difficult) but Whole Foods 365 brand is much cheaper. If it’s a dollar more, I’ll probably still get the Tropicana, but if it’s more than that, I probably won’t.

4. Track prices. Keep a price book, a small notepad of items you buy frequently. It’s the best way to spot a deal.

Yes.

This is one of the Tightwad Gazette strategies. I was never organized enough to do an actual price book, but I’m sort of addicted to looking at prices and I have a crazy good memory so I generally know what is standard and what is a good price. If I ever went on the Price is Right, I would kick ass.

5. Stockpile. When something you use a lot is on sale, buy multiples.

Yes & No.

In theory this is fine, but for the most part, I think stockpiling is a bad idea. Studies have shown that people use more of something when they have more of it, so I think you don’t save as much as you think you would. (Of course I can’t find links to any of those studies right now, and I’m too lazy to look very hard at this moment. I’ll try to see what I can dig up when I have more energy. Sorry, long week.)

Also things don’t keep forever. Make sure the thing you stockpile will still be good by the time you get around to using it.

And some things just take me forever to go through. If it takes me two years to go through a bottle of Worcestershire sauce, do I really need more than one bottle in my pantry?

On the other hand, I’ve been making cookies for Scrap Exchange Third Friday, so over the holidays when chocolate chips were on sale at every store I went into, I bought like six packages because I’d walk in and see the price and go “Ooh, those are cheap” and then I’d go to another store and they’d be even cheaper. And I’m only using those for Third Friday so I’m not actually using more than I would otherwise. And I know I’ll be able to use them before they deteriorate. And I can make cookies for the forseeable future without having to remember to go to a regular grocery store for chocolate chips. All good.

6. Price match. If your store matches competitors’ prices, bring along sales fliers to get the lowest prices. Wal-Mart and Target, for example, have national price-matching policies.

No opinion.

I’m sure this is a perfectly good strategy but there’s no way I’m going to be bothered to do that. It goes back to the coupon thing which I just can’t make myself do. You gotta pick your battles. This is not one of mine.

7. Check the freezer section. Frozen fruits and vegetables are usually frozen in the field, so they may have more nutrition than fresh produce that’s been sitting in bins. Frozen fish may taste fresher than fresh fish that’s labeled “previously frozen.”

Yes yes yes.

Frozen foods are especially useful for small households and for people like me who adhere to a just-in-time shopping strategy. I have several meals that can be made entirely from things in the freezer and pantry, so even if I haven’t been able to make it to the store in much longer than usual, I can still usually manage to put together a passable meal.

8. Don’t be afraid of canned tomatoes. When tomatoes aren’t in season, canned tomatoes are usually much cheaper than fresh, and the flavor may be better in a cooked dish than fresh tomatoes that have to be cooked down.

People are afraid of canned tomatoes?

Yes, certainly.

If you’re really on the ball, you can can your own tomatoes, either ones you grow or ones you buy from farmers’ markets when they’re in abundance. Sometimes you can get seconds that are cheap (but probably not in Durham, they don’t have cheap things at the farmers’ market here). My parents, who have a fabulous market near them, get a bushel of seconds and process them for canning and spaghetti sauce that they use throughout the year.

9. Use those scraps. Keep recipes in your repertoire that let you use smaller amounts of leftover meat and vegetables. Examples: frittatas, salads, and fried rice. Or sauté leftovers and use them to top a baked potato.

Yes, yes.

You can put almost anything in an omelet, and lo mein, casseroles, and fried rice are great ways to make a good meal out of little bits of this and that.

10. Stretch milk by using dried or evaporated milk for part of the fresh milk when you’re baking.

Yes.

For the most part, you will not be able to tell the difference between baked goods made with dried milk and baked goods made with fresh milk. The only thing I’ve made where I noticed a difference were bucky cakes, which I thought were noticeably more delectable when made with Mapleview Dairy buttermilk than they were the normal way I make them, with dried buttermilk. Since I only make those for special occasions, I will most likely go with the fresh buttermilk from now on.

Okay so only one big fat “no” on that list, the rest mostly “yes” and a few “mmmm, maybe.”

There you have it, your frugal tips for the week. Hope you enjoyed.

15 Responses to “Frugal Habits”


  1. The grocery shopper in my house adheres faithfully to the once-a-week rule. He’s not happily frugal, however. He considers shopping work and hates all work on principle. I have a really big bag of chocolate chips I would be willing to donate to your First Friday cookies.

  2. Marcia Says:

    I definitely plan my meals a week in advance and shop from a list. But mostly, I plan my meals based on what I got from my CSA (which vegetables will last longer? Yeah, the cabbage can wait until day 6.) I buy what is needed to round things out.

    I love grocery shopping AND cooking and being creative in the kitchen too, but I also have a full time job, a six year old, and I’m pregnant. So I absolutely have to plan ahead and make certain things on certain nights. Some nights I am home 60-75 mins before dinner time. Some nights it’s up to my husband to cook (those are mostly leftover + salad nights). I can maybe swing “winging it” once a week, and definitely do not have the time to shop mid-week, unless it’s a short trip on my (30 minute) lunch break.

    I also love the “use up the fridge” challenges and am, in fact, doing one right now. It’s time to defrost our mini-freezer in the laundry room, so I’m eating what I’ve got.

    I do all that other stuff too.


  3. If you have to call yourself “America’s Cheapest Family” you probably aren’t. (Although it will get you on TV. Repeatedly.) If you’re able to afford and then are crazy enough to actually use walkie-talkies when you’re doing the grocery shopping, then you’re “cheap”ness is a hobby, not a necessity. (And it makes you waaaay creepy.)

  4. lessisenough Says:

    All donations of chocolate chips happily accepted.

    My feelings about grocery shopping changed when I stopped working in an office and started working from home. That’s when I started the “shop more, spend less” campaign. It’s now a nice break for me, I can think about what I need (and/or want) and then walk to the grocery store and spend $8-$12 a few times a week. It gets me out of the house, I get excercise, I get food. It’s a good strategy.

  5. lessisenough Says:

    Definitely I think that the “shop more, spend less” strategy works better for some lifestyles than others. If you have kids and a fixed schedule with not a lot of free time you need to make the call ahead of time, figure out what you’re doing and make it happen.

    I think my frustration with the “shop from a list, shop once a week” advice is that it’s given as one size fits all — this is what everyone should do — instead of here is one approach that will work.

    And this is reminding me that I was going to try to write up a detailed “how to shop” post that gives a variety of different options — shop once a week, shop once a month, shop every day — and talks about the circumstances under which the different strategies work best. Maybe I’ll try to get that done.

  6. lessisenough Says:

    Not only do you call yourself “America’s Cheapest Family,” but you actually make it a registered trademark. So in case some other family starts going around calling themselves “America’s Cheapest Family” you can sue them. Hey man, we were cheap first.

    Definitely something very off about the whole thing. Also I feel like it’s people like that who give frugality a bad name.
    And the idea of turning your lifestyle into your occupation — basically branding yourself as an end in itself (a la Ree Drummond) — feels so strange to me.

    There may be a full post on this at some point in the future but I had to let it go last night.

  7. Jenny Says:

    I checked out that book by America’s Cheapest Family from the library. Their grocery shopping and cooking strategies sound exhausting to me.

    I try to keep my pantry stocked with the basics. I also keep an updated inventory of my freezer so I can work with what I already have.

    I do need to work through my freezer/pantry though. I could probably feed my family for a month if I needed to.

  8. lessisenough Says:

    I decided I need to actually look at the book before I start dissing it, but yeah, from what I could see, the way they do things sounds like a lotta work — and then people look at that and say oh being frugal is hard, I could never do that.

    The Tightwad Gazette has an article called The Pantry Principle which as far as I’m concerned is really the underlying theme to all of the shopping strategies. I’m using that as the starting point for the “how to shop” post that I started somewhere between 6 months and 2 years ago, and that I think has a paragraph and a half written. I’m going to put that on the list for what to work on next. And I’ll try to get the Economides book from the library and see if there’s anything I can incorporate from that and/or to just to see what I think.

    Thanks for your input.

  9. Ruby Leigh Says:

    I “meal plan”, but it’s defined more of an add-hoc approach. I sometimes say things like “fish dish” or “use tomatoes” for the meal as opposed to literal meals. Sometimes I shop twice a week, sometimes none… so not a strict schedule there either. Like you, I have a freezer and pantry that are capable of putting together a meal at any time.

    The biggest help and hindrance in my current frugal aspirations is my bf. He helps cook(which is frugal), but he also tempts me to go out more (which is not)… not quite sure how to figure that out yet.

  10. Marcia Says:

    I think what the Economides do probably works for them because of the size of their family too. When you are cooking for that many mouths, it makes a big difference.

    When I was on maternity leave, I definitely did more of the “shop daily”. I’d watch the Food Network while nursing, pop the baby in the sling, walk the mile to the store, buy a few items, walk home, and cook. I did that a few times a week. We ate like kings and saved money to boot. Probably do the same on this mat leave too.

  11. lessisenough Says:

    I feel like one thing with the going out problem is to find places you can go out to and not spend too much money. I lived in DC which is a really expensive place to live, but the places I went out to were all cheap. Whitey’s half-price burger night and Mr. Eagan’s for $6 pitchers were the main places I went.

    Then I moved to North Carolina which is much cheaper, but that meant my friends all had much more money available to spend on going out. So I had total sticker shock whenever we’d go out to eat, it would be $20-$40 every time I walked out the door. But eventually I found the places to go to that I really liked that were also super cheap — $3 burritos and $6 asian food, it got me out of the house without breaking the bank.

    So that’s my advice, figure out where you can go that you really like that doesn’t cost too much. I’m sure if you look you can find something.


  12. Whitey’s!! I lived in Arlington for 5 years. Ah, memories.

  13. lessisenough Says:

    I lived in a bunch of different places in Arlington, but the next-to-last place I lived was just down the street from Whitey’s. I lived in this great house with two guys I had been friendly with in college that I randomly ran into when we were all looking for places to live in Arlington. We ended up pooling our resources and finding this awesome house that we lived in for maybe a year and a half before Ted moved out west to be with his girlfriend (now wife).

    Ted and Chip would walk down to half-price burger night every Wednesday, and eat burgers and drink beer and play pinball. It was like a religious ritual for them. I didn’t go every week, but I went when I could.

    That neighborhood went completely upscale shortly after I left (in 1998) and Whitey’s turned into a wine bar called Tallulah’s. I went there once a few years ago, we sat out at the sidewalk tables and had drinks and some tapas, and it was such a surreal experience to go inside to use the restroom, with this this super fancy bathroom in what felt like still should have been Whitey’s. So strange.

  14. Cindy Says:

    I think for a single person the no planning approach would work better but if I go into a store with no list, and no thought as to what I am there for, my budget is busted…BIG time…but I find as I live life and get older that experience is the best teacher of all time

  15. lessisenough Says:

    I think it depends on how much you have stored in your head and how much you’re figuring out as you go. If you don’t have a lot stored, you need to think about it, make notes, put together a list. If you mostly do the same thing all the time, it’s easier to keep track of.

    My brother used to joke about how when his wife would do the grocery shopping, she’d spend $100 and come home with microwave popcorn and cleaning supplies. He’d be like okay, what exactly are we having for dinner tonight? He quickly realized that if he was going to do the cooking, he was going to have to do the shopping too.

    If you don’t really know what you’re doing, you definitely can’t wing it.


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