In Part I, I wrote about how I researched and categorized my grocery spending over two months. I discovered that, on average, I’m overshooting my $125 weekly budget by nearly $40. Now it’s time to look at the trends and figure out why we’re spending so much on groceries.
This is a pretty long post, so here’s the short version:
- Gather the Data (Part I)
- Consider your Goals & Determine What Doesn’t Align
- Brainstorm Solutions
This section contains a list of questions to ask while brainstorming.
- Analyze More
- Develop Guidelines (Part III)
This process could be used to analyze just about any part of your spending (your entire budget down to a specific category like your grocery budget). I’m finding it very enlightening.
Consider Your Goals & Determine What Doesn’t Align
I’m going to specifically look at categories where the data doesn’t align with my expectations. I set four goals for my Minimalist Food Month and two of them apply:
- Figure out the best ways to grocery shop and stay under budget.
- Explore how to eat healthier foods.
Considering these goals, a couple areas stand out. The highest spending categories in my grocery budget are, in order: vegetables, meat, dairy, and disposables (diapers, paper towels, zip lock bags, etc). Vegetables is a great category to be high on (it’s mostly due to our CSA), so I won’t worry about that.
Meat and dairy are the next highest categories. This is something I’ve been meaning to change. Meat and dairy have been linked to a variety of health issues including cancer, heart disease, and acne. In fact, there was another article published in the Washington Post this week about dairy. I feel that we don’t need to cut these items out of our diet, but we could benefit from reducing our intake.
In addition, the disposables category is killing me. With our first daughter, I used cloth diapers until she was potty trained. With our second, we switched back to disposable diapers when some of the cloth diapers began to leak. I’d love to get rid of diapers completely. Paper towels too.
Now that I know where my problem areas are, the next step is to brainstorm ideas to fix them. This might be a good place to bring in friends and family, particularly your spouse. The more ideas you have, the more solutions you’ll have to pick from. A good rule of thumb is don’t judge your ideas yet, just lay everything out on the table. You’ll pick the best solutions later.
There are a few questions I asked myself about each category that helped generate ideas:
- Do I really need this? Is it healthy?
- Are there cheaper brand alternatives?
- Can I use another product entirely?
- Should I buy this when it’s on sale or with coupons?
- Am I shopping at the right store?
- Think creatively!
Let’s take for instance meat consumption, which was my biggest problem category.
Do I really need this? Is it healthy?
The answer is no, we don’t really need to eat meat. The problem is that we like meat and aren’t ready to cut it out of our diet. Therefore, a reasonable goal for us might be to eat 2-3 meatless meals every week, which should reduce our consumption and our spending.
Are there cheaper brand alternatives?
We already buy the store brand most often and going cheaper with respect to meat is maybe not the best idea. The answer here is no.
Can I use another product entirely?
Yes, we can either use vegetarian alternatives (think Boca Burgers) or make vegetarian dishes more often. I’ve got a delicious vegetarian cookbook (Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home) already, so perhaps I should bolster my collection of meat-free recipes so it’s easy to choose meatless meals each week.
Can I shop when this is on sale or with coupons?
Yes, I could buy in bulk when items are on sale and freeze for later.
Am I shopping at the right store?
I’ve been informally researching this one for years. I’ve tried every store in the area, sometimes going to two or three of them each week. What I’ve found is that Target has the cheapest options, but they don’t have enough variety, especially for fresh foods. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have the best stuff, but you can’t get everything you need there. I’ll be writing about where I ended up shopping shortly, but for now, my best recommendation is to shop in one place each week. Find a place with a combination of decent prices and variety and just go there. I find I save time and give myself maximum flexibility in choosing exactly the right combination of foods to meet my budget.
Meat prices are relatively the same everywhere I’ve shopped. No big gain from switching stores.
If I limited the amount I spend specifically on meat to, say, $20 a week that would force me to eat more vegetarian meals or buy meat when it’s well-priced.
Maybe you find out that you need more data. For instance I went back and looked at the price fluctuation of various meat options that I buy weekly and the swing in prices can sometimes be a difference of $2-$5 for the same thing. I could save a lot of money if I buy a lot of meat on sale and freeze it for later.
Brainstorm and analyze each problem area. Once you’re done, the next step is picking your top solution(s), setting new guidelines and changing habits. I’ll go over that in Part III.
Here are the various options we came up with for our problem areas. (Note: some of these obviously won’t work, but when you’re brainstorming, that’s OK.):
- At least two meals a week should be meatless
- Buy in bulk (when on sale) and freeze a bunch
- Try Costco
- Limit meat budget to $20/week
- Cut out dairy for a month and see if that improves my health
- Reduce dairy to one small glass of milk a day and cheese used in some recipes.
- Potty train my 16 month old
- Salvage the old cloth diapers and use them for nights for my older daughter
- Break out the cloth wipes
- Buy some flour sack towels and quit using paper towels
- Buy some reusable zip lock bags
- Stop buying desserts. We don’t need them.
- Completely cut out pre-made, processed meals
- Develop a collection of meals with few ingredients and with prep time less than 30 minutes
- Buy coffee only on sale
Next Step: I’ll cover how I chose my best options to fix the grocery budget and turned them into habits in Part III.