The question I get asked more then any other is, " How do I start saving money on groceries?" People tell me that the task seems daunting and confusing. I wanted a resource for you to read over and give you a jumping off point. There are 2 reasons I am calling this "Frugal Boot Camp". We all know that bootcamp is intense. Overhauling the way you shop is not a small task. Somedays, you just want to buy whatever and get out of the store. I promise you, the more you practice this skill, the better you will get at it. Secondly, bootcamp is meant to change you. Once you start shopping like a frugal person who is wise with their money, you will not easily fall back into bad shopping habits. You will see so much money saved and feel such as sense of empowerment, that this will be your new normal. Your going to build those frugal muscles!
This is a long, information packed post, so get a cup a coffee and a notepad so you can take notes.
If you have questions or comments about the Frugal Boot Camp, please comment at the end of this post, email me or send me a message via Facebook.
I remember a few years ago, when I would go to pick up groceries, I would leave the store feeling so defeated. I would work really hard at making sure I was buying everything on sale, I refrained from impulse shopping and stuck to my list. I planned my shopping trips around promotions like 15% Tuesday and I still couldn't get our grocery budget under $1000. I did use coupons on occasion when I saw them in the store, but not on a regular basis.
I would go to Superstore, thinking they price matched all the other stores so if I buy everything there- that's the best deal. I would spend about $200 a week and still not have everything I needed. Then I would have to do a Walmart run every couple weeks totalling about another $100 or more, and still go to Costco at least once a month. Ever tried to get out of Costco spending less then $200?!
Now, when I leave the grocery store - I am actually excited and thrilled at the deals I get and the hundreds of dollars I save. My grocery budget is easily under $1000 a month for 6 people, including two teenage boys who never seem to stop eating!
So let me share how I went from defeated to thrilled at the grocery store!
I knew things needed to change, but I also knew quality of food and time, were a huge consideration. So when I started researching better grocery shopping techniques, I had 2 requirements to meet.
1) It couldn't take me 40 hours a week- I already worked outside the home, had 4 kids to drive to piano, soccer and gymnastics, and a husband going to school and studying a lot. I needed to come up with a system that made this quick and easy to save money.
2) I wasn't willing to sacrifice good nutrition for the sake of a deal. My kids are great eaters and not picky. They like vegetables, salads, fish and beans. I wanted to keep their great eating habits that we had worked so hard to establish. So I needed to find a way to get quality food on the table for less.
Everyone knows you can't change your habits if you don't know what your current habits are.
First, I looked over our grocery receipts and bank statements. Where were we spending the most money? What were the most expensive components of our meals? How often were we running to the store, besides our weekly shop? Was being in a hurry and running in for a few things, costing us a lot of money every month?
Ask yourself a few questions about your grocery habits:
Do you always go in every week and buy the same thing not realizing that you have enough of that particular item at home? Do you buy toilet paper every week, no matter what the price, because you need it? What if the toilet paper is $9.99 one week and $5.99 the next? Would it make sense to buy 4-6 packs at $5.99 to get you through to the next sale?
Are you too busy to plan, and then just go to your closest store when your out of groceries? Even if all you do for the next month is track your spending habits and how much you spend, this will be valuable information when it's time to start trimming your budget. You can't fix anything, if you don't see on paper, where your money is going.
For us, I noticed that we liked to eat snacks like chips and pop, on the weekend when we have movie nights or company over. Instead of running to the store on Friday night and just grabbing our favourites, I now plan ahead. I watch Shoppers Drug Mart when they have sales on chips for $2 and 6 packs of pop for $1.99. This way I'm buying our snacks on sale and I'm also getting Shoppers Optimum points. This step alone can save us $60 a month.
Secondly, I started looking closer at flyers and keeping a price list. I started to notice patterns with different stores. Sale cycles are anywhere from 6 - 12 weeks. If an item like sour cream goes on sale for $1 at Sobey's, you will probably notice the same sale 6-12 weeks from now.
Sour cream is a perishable item, so obviously you can't stock up on too many. A few weeks ago, Sobey's had this exact sale. I bought the sour cream at $1, with the longest expiry dates. I also had some coupons left, so I used those as well and paid .30c for a container of sour cream. We use about 1 a week, so I made sure to only buy 6 so they would be used well before they expired.
Another sale I notice often, is Kraft Dinner at Safeway. Every couple months, the KD goes on sale at $5.99 a case or Buy One Get One at $11.99. This works out to .50c a box. I then stock up and I am not paying $1.27 for a box of KD, when I need it.
Another way you can save a lot of money, is knowing the price per load or item in a package. Dish tabs, laundry soap, and toilet paper all come in different size packages. I knew from my frugal uncle that I should not be paying more then .25c for a single roll of toilet paper. So I started there. If it was more then that- I wasn't buying it. Now my stock up price for toilet paper is 15c. for a single roll.
Laundry soap is another tricky one. Soap comes in liquid or tabs. One bottle says 32 loads, another says 48. It's easy to figure out, just by taking the price of the laundry soap and dividing it by the number of loads on the bottle - then you now know how much you pay for each load. Figure out how much you pay when the laundry soap is not on sale and how much you pay when you find a great deal.
Stores like Safeway and Superstore, actually do the work for you. If you look closely at the price tag, it states the price per 100 ml or per load in the package. Look at the different size packages, the regular price and the sale price. Sometimes you may be surprised to see that it's cheaper to buy the smaller package.
Think of your self actually throwing money in the dishwasher every time you put a tab in. How much do you throw in, 10 cents or 50 cents ? If you run your dishwasher every day or even sometimes twice a day, like our family - it can really add up.
The other thing to notice is price limits. Some stores set up their prices 2/$5. At a store like Save On Foods this means if you buy 1 you are only going to pay $2.50. At a store like London Drugs or Shoppers Drug Mart - if you only buy 1 you are going to pay $2.79 or $3. You have to buy 2 items at these stores, to get the lower price. Superstore will set up pricing such as buy 1 at $3 and every item after that is $3.50 or only pay $2 but you have to buy 3. Look very carefully at the wording on the price tags and double check your receipts.
Next, have a look at where the majority of your grocery budget goes every week. Is it non-food items like cleaning supplies, pet food, toiletries and paper towels? Is it organic produce? Baby items like diapers and formula? This is why you need your receipts. Once you know what your buying, start to research some cheaper solutions. Ask friends and family, how they are saving on produce or diapers? You may discover a produce co-op that will save you time and money.
If you really want to bring costs down on non-food items like cleaning supplies and pet food, and have no problem using coupons, then your in luck. There a lot of coupons out there for these items. You can stick to coupon apps like Checkout 51, or you can print them off sites like smartsource.ca or look for tear pads in the stores. You can also stock up on several months worth of these items if you find a good sale. I buy the majority of my items like this at London Drugs (where I can stack coupons and usually pay just the tax) or Target (who seem to have excellent clearance).
If your spending a lot every week on produce or meat, there are a lot of ways to cut the cost of this as well. Some Walmart stores will price match any flyer across Canada. I now am a regular Walmart shopper for produce and meat. I am paying half of what other grocery stores charge.
I have also found organic carrots, apples and bananas for the same price or cheaper, then non-organic. I have shopped at stores like H&W Produce which will have prices sometimes 1/3 or 1/2 of the grocery chains. I am also part of a produce co-op, that let's me choose which produce I want at the beginning of the week and then I pick it up on Friday. I usually pay around .50c a pound for apples instead of $1.75 or $2 for 10 lbs of potatoes.
Buying your produce in season will save you a lot of money as well. I know that Safeway or Save On Foods usually has cases of blueberries on sale in July. I buy a couple cases, wash and freeze them. It is much cheaper to do this then to buy frozen blueberries in January.
An option for lower priced meat is to find a local farmer and buy 1/2 or 1/4 cow, or even whole chickens already cleaned and ready for the freezer. You can often get very good quality meat this way and pay a lot less for everything from ground beef to steaks. Turkey will go as low as .99c/lb at Thanksgiving and ham will be the cheapest around Easter. That's when I buy extra and freeze it. You will also notice in most grocery stores that there is meat with sale stickers on them. The reason is that they are close to expiry. If you have the freezer space, this is a great way to save.
Baby items are another area that is important to know your per item pricing. Figure out how much you are paying per diaper or per serving of formula. Get on company websites like Huggies and Pampers and become a member of VIB at Shoppers Drug Mart.
There are coupons available for baby items, and stores like Shoppers Drug Mart and Save On Foods will award you points as well. These points can then be used to get free items like formula and diapers. I remember when we had kids in diapers, we had no problem using store brand diapers since they cost a lot less. What we found though, is at night they weren't absorbent enough to get our babies through a 10 hour sleep without leaking. So we used the more expensive Pampers, but only for night time.
Next you need a plan or a system. This looks different for everyone. I always go online or on my phone and start looking over the upcoming flyers for the week. Most stores start new sales on Friday. I have my list ready to go by Thursday evening.
Some stores like Safeway will have fantastic weekend sales on staples like milk and butter. I take note of those sales and I organize my list by store.
I also have a pretty good idea of what I am out of and what I need to buy every week.
If you are short on time, then you probably only want to visit 1 or 2 stores a week. You can still take advantage of sales at every store by price matching. Walmart will price match any local stores and some Walmart's will even price match Canada wide. Superstore and London Drugs will also price match locally.
You could just go to Superstore or Walmart and price match your whole list. If your like me, I am all over my town several times a week, running errands and dropping kids off at various activities. So I will usually do 1 price match trip to Walmart and then I may stop in at a couple other stores when I am in the area and just pick up the sale items.
I like to check out the clearance sections of certain stores and that's why I prefer to not just shop at 1 store every week. I will only go to Costco 3-4 times a year and buy a few items that are the best deal, like popcorn kernels and vanilla.
Now let's say you buy most of your groceries at Costco because you believe that bulk buying is cheaper. This is not always the case, especially if you shop with coupons. For example, if you have 3 coupons for Head and Shoulders, you would be better off to buy it at Target, on sale and use all 3 coupons on 3 bottles, then to buy a multipack at Costco, where you can't use any coupons.
Sometimes, certain items are cheaper at Costco though. Last summer Costco had a sale on the fresh Parmesan cheese. It was $20 a block instead of $25. We have been using that same block for 9 months! Even at $25, that will beat any sale that any grocery store has on parmesan and it tastes so much better then the powdered variety. When your shopping at Costco, it's very important to also know your per item pricing.
Clearance is another great way to save money on groceries. Clearance happens for a number of reasons. The store may need room for a reset, the manufacturer is coming out with new packaging or the item is close to expiry. Last summer, Robin Hood was coming out with new plastic bags for their flour. In all Safeway stores they had Robin Hood flour on clearance for 50% off. The flour wasn't stale and the packaging was intact. I scored some great deals on a quality product that I use often. Get to know where the clearance items are in your local stores and have a quick look- you just never know what you will find!
Sometimes I think I am the grocery stores worst nightmare. Here's why: I am really good at ignoring all of the over priced products on my way in to get milk. Have you ever noticed that essentials like milk and bread are at the very back of the store? Grocery stores want you to walk past all the items that are not on sale, and just pick up a few things along with your milk and bread. Next thing you know, you have spent $60 and all you needed when you went in, was a few staples.
Now that I know my prices very well and I am well stocked on most of my family's needs, I can walk in and imagine I have blinders on. I will grab the milk, look at the clearance sections to see if there are any good deals, check my list on my phone to see if there were any other good sales that I wanted to take advantage of and I get out. The longer you dilly dally in that store, the more you will spend. This is why I give myself a short period of time to get in and out of the grocery store before I need to go pick up my kids or get to an appointment. Don't let boredom cost you money!
Brand loyalty can also cost you a bundle! Just because your mother always used Tide, doesn't mean there aren't other good laundry soaps on the shelves. Be willing to try a different brand, especially if it's consistently cheaper. Tide is one of the most expensive laundry soaps. I have used Sunlight, Gain, and Purex and they all work just fine! Start with one bottle and see if you like it. You may discover some great products that you had no idea existed.
Don't try to overhaul your entire grocery budget in one month. It's too overwhelming. Start with your most expensive items and when you find a great deal - stock up. Keep your price list updated and watch how your bottom line prices keep going down as you get better at finding deals. Don't forget to keep track of how much money your saving. This is a life long skill that you are learning and it will take time, but in the end, it will save you thousands of dollars!