May was a lean month; money seemed to flow through our fingers in April as we bought our planned expenses (garden beds, insulation, 7 ½ tons of dirt) and our unplanned ones (medical bills and that fiasco with the bathroom). We decided to try to trim the grocery budget and challenge ourselves to reduce our food expenditures significantly. We dubbed it Mustacheian May after Lee’s favorite financial advice website: Mr. Money Mustache.
Looking back on Mustacheian May, we feel like we had a successful month making the changes needed to reduce our grocery budget. Normally, money-saving columns make suggestions that cause our eyes to shoot out laser beams of disgust when they suggest we stop picking up our daily quadruple latte or brown bag it to work. Lee makes swanky lattes at home, and we’re the masters of brown bagging it. We bring our lunch to work almost every day from dinner leftovers, and we make the occasional meal where we’ll intentionally cook more food so we can pop the extra into the freezer. This way, we always have a meal to take into work with us. Since we already go to restaurants so rarely, suggestions to eat dinner at home don’t really help us trim costs. So rather than make all the traditional recommendations about how to tighten up your grocery budget, here are some of the things we do routinely and during Mustacheian May to keep our grocery budget in line.
(1) Stop hitting the booze.
Alcohol is expensive. Although we were far from slamming drinks back, we were definitely people who liked to have a glass or two of wine or beer a night on average. Some nights we didn’t drink anything, but other nights we drank four glasses together. We didn’t buy any alcohol for the month of May, and we’re settling into drinking a bit less in June. We’re saving money—and paying less in “sin” taxes.
(2) Play your meals for the week—and stick to it.
Before Mustacheian May, we’d wander into the grocery store and pile groceries into the cart that we usually bought. Later in the week, we’d stare into the fridge and wonder what we could make with our assortment of vegetables. Now, we spend a little time each week planning out the meals we’ll eat and writing out a list of things we need to purchase to make those meals. Then, we walk into the grocery store with our list—and stick to it. It’s a commitment, for sure, but it also means we don’t accidentally stockpile veggie broth again or end up with too many vegetables that go bad at the end of the week. It’s also handy to know what we’re going to make in a week so there’s less temptation to grab a quick bite somewhere because we already have the stuff to make baked macaroni and cheese—we might as well!
(3) Necessities aren’t always necessities.
Six weeks ago, Lee would have stood clutching his bag of Lays Kettle Cooked Jalapeno Cheddar Potato Chips with a look of desperation and announced that he needed them. (Okay, there’s a tiny bit of hyperbole there). However, our goal for May was to reduce the budget, and so he gave up his two-bag-a-week habit for the month. After a month without potato chips, he realized that his compulsive eating of potato chips (compulsive is his word, not mine) was a manifestation of his stress level more than reflective of a genuine need on the grocery list. Research suggests that a new habit takes about a month to stick; I can attest that the last time we walked through the aisle of potato chips, Lee managed it without any real pangs of longing. Bottom line: think critically about what you put in the cart, and why you put it there. Lee saved our budget almost $28 in May simply by giving up potato chips (or $364 a year!).
(4) Convenience is costly.
At the grocery store, you pay for the convenience of prepackaged foods. For example, a 15-ounce can of black beans, which is a staple in our diet, costs about $1.20 and contains 3 servings while a 1-pound bag of dry black beans costs about $1 and has 12 servings. If you’re not familiar with using dry beans, they become larger and heavier upon being cooked, which is why such similar weights have a different number of servings. Yes, it takes a little more time to prepare dry black beans, but since we’ve already planned out what we’re going to eat on which days, it’s been very manageable to build soaking beans overnight into our lives.
Popcorn is another great example of how you pay extra for the convenience of packaged food. A box of popcorn can cost about $5 and contain 12 “bags,” which to a popcorn fiend like me is the equivalent of a serving of popcorn. I was able, however, to purchase a 32-ounce bag of locally grown popcorn kernels for $2.49 (a non-local variety was 1.81—but I like to support local farmers where I can). Those 32 ounces represent a significant cost saving per “bag” equivalent, though I’m not sure of the exact correlation between the ounces and the number of bags; I do, however, know that it is significantly cheaper and significantly more popcorn. Additionally, homemade popcorn only takes a few more minutes to make (and one dirty pan), but it tastes so much better and is much healthier for you.
Similarly, if you prefer to buy quality bread, it can raise your grocery bill quite quickly at $3 a loaf. My suggestion is for you to make your own bread. It’s not as labor intensive as you’d imagine, and nothing smells (or tastes) better than bread fresh from your oven. Lee makes two loaves of sourdough bread a week, and each loaf costs us a whopping .41 cents to make. It’s an unbelievable deal!
(5) Go meatless.
If I just caused you a mini heart attack as you went running to weep over your crispy bacon, I get it. Really. Not everyone wants to be a vegetarian. I’m not even a vegetarian, more vegetarian-lite. Instead of forgoing meat entirely, my suggestion is to go meatless once or twice a week; pick a new vegetarian recipe to experiment with, and reduce your grocery budget as a result. Meat is crazy expensive; sometimes I forget exactly how expensive it is until I buy some to cook for others.
(6) Have a set of cheap standby meals.
We have found that having a few cheap meals to incorporate into the weekly plan helps keep the food costs down. For example, black beans and rice is an easy, cheap dinner. We get dinner and lunch the next day out of the recipe, and it costs us at most $3 to make—and that’s if peppers aren’t on sale!
(7) Being basic is okay.
We love the convenience of quinoa because it is so quick to cook—and tasty. You better believe, though, that we upped our brown rice intake and dropped quinoa completely from our grocery shopping, and we saved a lot in the process. Even buying quinoa in bulk at Costco is expensive, so we went back to a basic staple. Little changes can add up to big savings.
(8) Be flexible.
After all my talk of planning, this one may surprise you! We are not such planners that we know what’s on sale before we traipse to the store committed to our list. We generally know which kinds of snacks we like to eat, and I’ll buy the fruits that are on sale that week rather than always buying gala apples or blueberries, no matter how much I love them. Cottage cheese not on sale? No biggie, I’ll pick up something else this week for snacks at work. Watermelons on sale? I’ll take two, please!
At this point, you may wonder what we did manage to eat this month. Let me tell you, we ate well: butternut squash and black bean enchiladas, curried vegetable quiche, spinach lasagna rolls, baked macaroni and cheese, veggie pot pie, homemade black bean burgers, eggplant panini, and broccoli cheddar potato soup—with fresh sourdough—among other meals. We certainly enjoyed the food we ate in May, and many of the strategies we adopted in May have hung around to June, even if the first items on the grocery list in June were beer and wine. In the end, I certainly hope you find these suggestions useful for your own budgeting adventures!