We’re not usually that family that keeps every single receipt in that one kitchen drawers, I swear. We only have 6 months worth of grocery receipts because I told my dad to keep certain receipts since we run an Airbnb. But as usual, my Chinese language-ing abilities and his hearing abilities are both abysmal so he heard to keep all the receipts.
Which is amazing because now I can examine our family’s groceries habits with a magnifying glass!
This post was inspired by Ms. FAF’s last food expense report, which I found to be relatable, entertaining and honest.
6 Months of Food Expenses:
This is what we spent on groceries and eating out every month for the last 6 months. You can see the full details of all our expenses in our monthly income reports. As you can see, we keep it around $400 as a family of 3 consisting of myself, my husband and our elderly father.
Sep Budget – $350
Aug Budget – $355
July Budget – $459
June Budget – $406
May Budget – $439
April Budget – $398
Keeping It Under $2.50/Meal
We are a family of 3. My father lives with my husband, Jared, and I. Jared eats his weekday lunch and dinner at work but all of his weekend meals are with us. My dad and I eat at home.
Between the 3 of us, we consume a cumulative average of 164 meals at home per month.
With a running average of upwards to $400 divided by the total meals at 164 means, we’re eating about $2.43 per meal in Seattle, Washington.
Seattle is currently the #6 most expensive city to live in within the United States, so I think we’re doing great.
For another reference, Seattle is 24% more expensive than the typical U.S. city so someone earning $50,000 a year would need to earn $62,000 a year to maintain the same standard of living as they did at $50,000.
It wasn’t always frugal like this…
Before dad moved in, I had trouble controlling my grocery budget. The worst thing was that I couldn’t pinpoint what I was doing wrong. It felt like money just fell out during every grocery check out. I even went out of my way to shop at discount grocers! I always thought I was doing so good and getting these awesome deals but when my husband and I tallied it up at the end of the month, I was always $100 over budget!
It was frustrating.
I did the shopping and cooking, my husband did the excel sheet bookkeeping. I would look at the numbers he put in and go:
“That HAS to be incorrect. I shopped at Grocery Outlet and Dollar General this month to cut costs. What am I doing wrong?”
It was embarrassing.
Our current grocery consumption is $100 lower than what it was before including an extra person! Now that my father has moved in with us and taken over the groceries, for the most part, our entire food budget including eating out has not even come close to the $500 mark we use to spend on just the two of us. Not even close!
What are the grocery hack secrets I’m missing?
I always wondered how my family survived on minimum wage living in San Francisco, California – playground of the rich, without going bankrupt.
Background on Dad
I don’t know his childhood in detail but from what my mom told me my dad was one of about 8 children in rural China. They were very poor (8 kids will do that to you). They ate a bowl of rice every morning with a single olive because that’s all they could afford.
“One single olive would need to last him through breakfast with his rice and if there was food waste, they were beaten.” – Mom
There’s no bacon or eggs here folks. Juuuuuuust misery. Rice was cheap and the olive was only used to make the rice more flavorful to swallow. Once when I was younger, I threw out food because I didn’t like it. My Dad almost popped the blood vessel in his forehead from anger.
After going through 63 receipts in the past 6 months of all our food and grocery related purchases, I think I’ve got enough proof.
This time last year, our groceries averaged over $500 a month for just 2 people. That’s a pretty big difference now that we are feeding 3 people for less than $400! If you asked me what I was doing wrong that 2 people for a month of only eating-in would rack up $500…I honestly could not tell you until I saw what dad was doing. This all seems natural to him since he has done it his entire life. I pieced it together comparing my old 2016 grocery transactions with our current stack of receipts.
General Advice You’ve Heard…
I’ve read groceries hack guides before (a lot of them) and they’re all great general advice but the instant I hit the grocer, my mind goes blank. (Not to mention, I usually shop on a hungry tummy.)
Not all grocery hacks are applicable or as straightforward as it may seem. Buy seasonal, find sales, stockpile, shop at cheaper grocers etc = generally good advice but if I may play the devil’s advocate here:
It’s hard to remember which items are seasonal for those just starting out. Once you get into it, it’s useful. But my brain, like a non-boring person’s brain, is focused on other issues besides the seasonality of tomatoes.
Finding sales is probably the first thing someone looking to trim their grocery budget will do, so that isn’t a tip, that’s just logic.
Stockpiling depends on the frequency of which you will use those items and the mark off the total.
4. Discount Grocers
The biggest lie is that discount grocers are automatically, magically less expensive. Discount grocers are not always cheaper. Some things at my Grocery Outlet were more expensive compare to my Asian supermarket and my wholesale club. In addition to that, they’re discounted for a reason. The fruits and produce I purchased at Grocery Outlet expired at twice the rate of fruits and produce elsewhere. I was so angry! I complained my husband’s ears off about that. The worst thing was I only shaved off 9 cents a pound!
How We Keep Our Food Costs Low
Looking through these receipts the first thing I noticed was the lack of variety. Well, I mean I knew that. I’ve mentioned before he just cooks a few dishes over and over. The receipts show that so I was able to tally these up fairly easy.
Most repeated items purchased in the last 6 months (in order of most common first):
Baby Bok Choy
*Garlic & ginger didn’t make the list because they’re staples and last a long time so he buys a big pack in bulk.
*Rice is a staple and purchased in bulk online
Sad to say, that small list accounts for 65% of his grocery variety. I wasn’t joking when I said he has the tendency to make the same dishes over and over.
Don’t ‘Dora the Explorer’ Things.
I’m one of those people who love food shopping. It’s just regular shopping but you can eat it. That was a problem of mine before which was why our grocery bill was much higher for just 2 people. I wanted variety and try all the new products like mango salsa and macaron ice cream. Nothing that was going to fill up a tummy but…macaron + ice cream.
Limit Food Variety
Every culture of cuisine has a staple. Jasmine rice is ours and it’s very inexpensive. Stick with what is familiar.
Limiting food variety is a double edge sword. I love food in all forms: braised, baked, fried. But you save a lot of money if you only use the staples of a particular cuisine. There were nights before when it was just me and Jared in the house. We had leftover Singaporean food with classic Southern American comfort food from the day of; my husband found my diversity amusing. Clean up was horrible and so was the grocery bill. No more of that and then the costs suddenly started going down.
My parents only cook Chinese food. They believe it is superior to everything else (except Korean food, they’re OK with that.) My dad stocks up and buys 3 to 4 tofu packs at a time depending on the sale and we have to eat tofu before they expire.
Normally, a pack of tofu has a shelf life of 2 weeks in the refrigerator.
If it was me I would do a week of Mexican food, a week of Indian food and a week of Chinese food which means I’m probably not going to be in a hurry to empty that stockpile of tofu. So no money saved and more food wasted.
Repetition is boring but it makes things easier so that’s the trade-off choice you have to make.
2. COST PER POUND
Our family doesn’t buy organic/non-GMO items. My dad doesn’t even know what any of that mean or care and he’s too old school to change. Focusing on quantity does not mean they’re not as good or nutritious.
Quantity first. Use less popular cuts of meat and cheaper vegetables (cabbage, potato, onions).
According to our sales receipt, a bag of baby bok choy around 2 lbs is about $1.88. Chicken drumsticks (the only kind of chicken my dad buys) are 89 cents a lb. Pork cost $1.88 to $2.50 per pound depending on the cut and sales. Zucchinis are 89 cents a pound. Yellow onions are 39 cents a pound. Napa cabbage is 69 cents a pound. A dozen eggs are about $1 to $1.19 when they go on sale. Green onions are the only thing that is expensive (for a garnish) at 99 cents for 2 to 3 bundles.
My wholesale club put the price per ounce on display so it’s easier to shop by weight. My personal rule at the wholesale club is to only buy items that are on sale unless the price per ounce is very reasonable. I go once a week by myself to buy items like hamburger patties, red meat and cheesecake to break the repetitiveness of home-cooking without breaking the bank.
If it’s not on sale, 8 out of 10 times I just won’t get it. I’m stubborn like that. For example, last Thursday, guacamole was not on sale so I just went without for our DIY taco night.
Wild Card Discounts
Most grocers have a “last call if anyone wants it” corner where you can peak in to see the selection for the sake of embarrassing your spouse with your cheapness and the adorable look the cashier gives you when she sees all the 40% off orange tags she has to manually ring up.
Day old beef isn’t glamorous but my retirement accounts will be.
On several of my dad’s receipts, there is usually an item called “open” item. That could vary from anything at any weight at the grocery store. “Open” items are generally 99 cents and up. They could be mangoes near expiration. A papaya that has been dented. Bags of ramen that has been stepped on. Your dignity as you stand over the discounted papayas wondering why you’re so cheap. If there is decent open produce available, my dad will pick it up (and honestly so would I.)
3. RECONSIDER WHAT YOU’VE LEARNED BEFORE
Stockpile with Intent
Stockpiling is tricky. That was one of the things I was doing wrong. ONLY stockpile if you know you will need and use them soon because of the aforementioned: eating a narrower scope of cuisine makes things cost-effective overall. I bought coconut milk by the 10 pack thinking I would use them in Thai & Indian curry but I never got around to making any curry. There’s still 7 cans sitting in the pantry after 11 months and mainland Chinese people don’t mess with coconut milk.
Limit Number of Stores
Some grocery guides tell you to shop around and, that to me, is bad advice.
First of all, you’re wasting time, energy and gas.
Second of all, you cannot be the master of that many grocery stores and all their baselines on price.
I know when our grocery store puts up the first clearance. I also know which days of the week my wholesale club generally changes up the items on sale. If you learn the ins-and-outs of one price arena, it will keep your cost low because now you have a baseline for it. Springing all over the place constantly doesn’t do anything but waste time and energy.
I went out of my way to grocery outlet to look for certain items at a discount when I should have been finding substitutes for a less expensive item at my closest grocery store!
Don’t Always Plan Meals
Yup, you heard right. Don’t plan it out. There are grocery guides that swear by meal planning. That works for some people but that doesn’t work for our family so it’s not necessary to keep food costs down.
How many meals do you get to have before you croak? You want it all the same? NO true blue foodie would ever say that!
We’re a spur of the moment – “let’s see what’s on sale” kind of family. I have a rule that if it’s not discounted, then I don’t buy it. If you plan out your meals, you don’t always get that option of hunting for an extra reduced sale AKA wild card discounts (from the aforementioned cheap corner of shame.)
You know those groceries that they set out way cheaper than even the stuff on sale? I love those.
We buy based on our experience in that arena and figure out how to put it together in the kitchen when we get home. That’s something you practice and it’s even more reason to limit just 1 or 2 stores.
If tomatoes look fresh and they’re on sale, then we’re having tomato fried eggs for dinner because eggs are always cheap. If I was craving mackerel fish but they’re not on sale, I’ll find alternatives or give up altogether and make something else. If you apply this with 1) repetition and 2) familiarity, it’s pretty easy to forgo a plan and go on a spur of the moment “what should I make for dinner.”
Which leads me to…
4. LEARN TO COOK
I don’t know why this isn’t on most grocery hacks, learning to cook will cut down on grocery costs. That’s pretty proven guys. Pre-made anything tends to be more expensive.
An argument with my best friend Soap:
Hey look Soapy! – *Skirt steak $3.99/lb*
Soapy – “Oh but I don’t know how to cook that. I’ll get the rib-eye at $10/lb.”
Me – “NOOOOO!!! Omg, why are you against learning?! If you learn, you get to use that knowledge again. It’s not shaving $5.99 a pound once but many times! A good chef uses all the raw material and wastes nothing! Check out AllRecipes, Tasty, CHEF FREAKIN’ JOHN @ Food Wishes on YouTube!!!”