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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.