How to Shop, Part I: Waste Not, Want Not

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Okay, I’m looking at info on the SNAP challenge, which seems to come around every year, and this time is being taken up by Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who is going to live for the week on the average amount of SNAP assistance in his home state of New Jersey, which is approximately $4.35 per day, or $30.45 per week.

And whenever I end up on this subject, I get comments addressing the politics of this situation, so before I get into this, I would like to state the following:

I respect everyone who takes this challenge and I recognize that often people who are receiving food assistance have problems in their lives that go far beyond simply a lack of money (for instance limited access to fresh food, difficult work schedules, and transportation issues, to name but a few).

The suggestions I am offering here are not specifically intended for people who are receiving public assistance, but are in the spirit of positive support for anyone who might be looking to shop for less than they are currently spending. My goal is to offer specific information on shopping on a limited budget that I hope will be useful. This is based on my personal experience of shopping and eating for the past 12+ years for between $90 and $100 dollars a month.

I will also state that the strategy I describe below is geared primarily towards small households, one or two people, and is not designed for large families living complicated lives involving working parents and kids and extracurricular activities. There are scads of blogs for you people already. This is not one of them.

Okay, there you have it. Thus ends the disclaimer.

Now for the details.

The first thing you want to do is re-think your shopping strategy.

You probably work with a once-a-week shopping trip, where you try to bring home everything you need for the week. This was Cory Booker’s strategy, he went to the store and spent $29.78 for what he hopes will be a week’s worth of food.

The once-a-week shopping strategy is almost universally promoted as a way to save money, the idea being that every time you go to the store, you will make all kinds of impulse purchases and bring home lots of things you don’t really need. You run into the store for a quart of milk and a loaf of bread and $75 later find yourself walking out the door. So you limit your trips to once a week and you get everything you need with one run through the grocery gauntlet. (There are people who go a step further and promote the once-a-month shopping strategy, which limits your exposure to Funyuns and Us Weekly even more, but I don’t think enough people actually do that for me to need to critique it.)

The basic idea underlying this is that you are capable of being a completely organized person who sits down on Saturday and plans out your week, including a menu for each day’s meals, and if you just have that in front of you, you will not turn into a completely impulsive person who loses all self-control when you find yourself in the supermarket fun house surrounded by brightly colored packaging and today-only specials.

I think the once-a-week approach is probably a very good strategy for people who meet some or all of the following criteria:

(a) you have a regular schedule
(b) you are effectively able to gauge how much food you will eat in a week
(c) you are capable of developing a weekly menu
(d) you are capable of adhering to the weekly menu that you developed
(e) you are able to cook food that gets completely eaten in a timely fashion (including all leftovers, which are consumed or frozen for later use).

When I had a job outside of the house , I employed this strategy until I finally came to the realization that I am not that person, and gave up on it.

I had a number of ongoing problems.

First, my schedule was somewhat erratic — sometimes I would have a work lunch and wouldn’t be hungry when I got home, sometimes I would have to work late, sometimes I would go out with friends and get bar food. Second, I’m a really moody eater. I want to eat what I feel like eating, and I am rarely able to predict on Saturday what I will feel like eating on Wednesday.

So I was buying food assuming I would be cooking a certain number of meals at home, but often I wouldn’t, I would make fewer. I was also buying things assuming that I would feel like eating that thing but then wouldn’t. Both of these problems resulted in my buying food that would be tossed into the garbage when it went bad because I didn’t get to it in time. (Sadly, I was not even feeding a worm bin at that point, it was all going straight to the landfill. Pains me to even think about that.)

This is bad. Very, very bad.

Whatever you do, you do not ever — EVER — want to throw away food. Food you buy and do not eat is the most expensive food you buy. It is a complete waste of money. Not to mention all of the other resources that are wasted.

When I left my job in DC and started working from home as a telecommuter, I decided I needed to see what I could do to fix this problem. And once I started focusing on it, I quickly realized that the once-a-week shopping trip just did not work for me. I was not good at gauging how much food I would use in a week and I was buying too much.

I decided on two immediate steps that I could take to improve the situation.

The first was to review what was in the refrigerator before I went to the store. (I know that sounds basic — no one said this was rocket science.) If anything was on its last legs, I would think about what I could make involving that thing. [Later I started thinking about how I could process about-to-turn-bad foods for future use, which is its own topic that I will address in a separate post.]

The second was to figure out what I was going to eat for the next couple of days. Not the rest of the week, mind you, which was unpredictable, just the next two or three days, which I usually had somewhat of a handle on.

So I would look in the fridge to see what I had and I would think about what I could make with that — maybe I would even look in cookbooks, back in the day when I had time and energy for that kind of thing — and I would put together a list of what I needed to buy.

And this is what I recommend you do if  you want to start working on this project of spending less on groceries.

The first thing you are doing is working to eliminate wasted food. I would say that most people can cut their grocery bill by at least 20% (and some people can save much more than that) simply by eating everything they buy and not throwing anything away.

You don’t need to analyze what you’re eating or whether you should be using coupons or if another store would be cheaper. You’re still buying the foods you like and making what you want from the store you like best. You’re just working on buying exactly the right amount of food.

Take care of one problem at a time. This is the first.

I am not a wildly adventurous eater, I like routine. Generally what happens to me is that I end up with a few things I eat regularly for breakfast and a few things I eat regularly for lunch.

So what I started doing when I implemented this new strategy was to fill in the gaps for my basic breakfasts and lunches, and to get what I needed for the next dinner I was making (which was usually that night’s — grocery shopping was often my afternoon break, I would walk to the store and get groceries and walk home and fix dinner).

Note that there are a few key things you are NOT doing when you shop this way.

You are NOT walking up and down every aisle in the grocery store.
You are NOT thinking about everything you ever eat and making sure you have some of it in your house.
You are NOT worrying about pet food, paper towels, shampoo. You can deal with those later, separately from your food. Just focus on food for now.

You are simply getting what you need to eat for the next couple of days. You are making sure you have enough — but not too much — of your regular breakfast and lunch staples and you are fixing a nice dinner, which will use up whatever you have in the fridge that is on the verge of going bad, and will ideally provide at least one, but not more than three, meals worth of leftovers. Because a girl can only eat so many leftovers before going gaaahh don’t make me eat that anymore.

Some people hear about this strategy and say okay but I HATE grocery shopping, I hate the grocery store, why would I want to go more often?

And the answer to that is that you will be shopping more often, but your shopping trips will be much more targeted so they will take much less time and, more importantly, much less mental energy. You are not wandering all over the store in search of everything. You are hitting the sections that have what you need right now. That’s it. (For me, this is generally the produce section, sometimes the dairy section, and the frozen foods cases. In and out.)

And you are not having problems with impulse purchases because you are just buying what is on the list that you need for the next few days. If you feel a great desire to buy something that is not on the list, you need to use all of your stored willpower to ignore that desire for the next ten minutes that you are in the store. You can make a mental note of what it is you want and promise yourself that if you still want it the next time you are putting together your grocery list — which will be in three days, you can wait that long — you can add it to the list. And if it is on the list, you can buy it.

If, like Cory Booker, you are working with a limited budget, you need to take that into account when you put together your list and plan your purchases.

And that will be the subject of the next post. Strategies for staying within a limited budget.

But first, you can start working on buying the right amount of food and not throwing anything away.

And if Cory Booker had consulted with me before going shopping, I would have told him to plan on three shopping trips for the week: one on Sunday to get food for Monday and Tuesday; one on Tuesday or Wednesday to get food for the rest of the work week; and one on Friday to carry him through the last few days.

But alas, he did not ask me. And now he is paying the price.