Getting your grocery budget set and organized

As I posted a little while ago, one of my 2018 goals is to start digging myself out of the financial hole I’ve created over the past few months. One of the ways I am going to do this is to create a firm grocery budget every week and use Ibotta/coupons to help bring me under budget. (Yes, I link to my Ibotta referral link, but no, this is not a sponsored post.)

This post is going to be about a few things: getting a handle on what you already have, making meal plans, and utilizing the technology you already have to help you budget.

1. Take inventory of your entire pantry.

Since this is the beginning of the year, the first item of business is to figure out what exactly I own and clear out expired food products. Clear out every nook and cranny where food hides. I’m talking your pantry, fridge, freezer, spice cabinet, snack stash, liquor collection, and (if you’re mean) additional pantry area. Clear out everything and write it all down with quantities. (Just do whatever works for you. For me, I note how many multiples of a full unit I have [i.e., 3 cans of tuna, 6 tubs of yogurt, 4 cans of chick peas] or how many partial quantities of a full unit I have [i.e., 1/2 a bag of frozen peas, 2 granola bars] and wing the rest of it. This method is meant to lessen my stress, not add to it!)

I use alcohol while cooking, and this a good way to keep those oddball liquors in the back of your mind. Like the time I convinced myself I was going to try and love Manhattans because I love bourbon and I’m almost 40. I told myself that I ought to start drinking cocktails adults drink instead of Wild Turkey and Diet (which doesn’t make me feel like the classy broad I am). Spoiler alert: I did not make myself love Manhattans. Apparently, my cocktail making skills are very rusty and I damn near sprayed bourbon and sweet vermouth all over my kitchen sink. It was terrible. I tried, but it just ended with tears and me gobbling down bourbon soaked maraschino cherries.

And that’s why I need to look up “ways to use up sweet vermouth.”

While doing this, I also checked expiration dates and put my eyes on everything. The Trader Joe’s harissa I wanted to try that leaked before I could use it? Trash. The spices that I probably bought before my other roommate moved out in 2015? Trash. You see where I’m going here. Now, I work in food service, and I’m not a stickler on expiration dates. I know that “best buy” dates are often just a guess. With that being said, I once gave myself a mild case of food poisoning because I ate roast beef that “was totally fine” because I really didn’t want to throw it out. Since then, I just throw out food if it’s even questionable. I’d rather throw out food than feel hungover all day without the fun of having gone out drinking the night before. Anything that looks or smells off, or items that were sealed and never refrigerated but have leaked get trashed. Anything that is a little past date that I probably won’t use also gets thrown in the trash pile.

I do these every couple months to help keep me organized and so I can make meal plans based around what I already have and what needs to be used up.

2. Make meal plans and stick to them.

I am usually pretty good about sticking to my budget. Well, until April hits and then it’s springtime and I want to grill and I want to buy ALLLLLLLLL THE DELICIOUS LOOKING FOODS AT TRADER JOE’S AND SCREW THIS BUDGET I WANT TO HAVE FUNNNNNNNN!

Obviously, that attitude isn’t going to work with getting me to my goal of moving to Colorado. For me, the trick is to combine “shopping” out of my pantry as much as possible, while still giving me the flexibility to buy new and interesting foods. In other words, limit myself without making myself feel trapped. So far, I’ve been doing pretty well this year. (To be fair, even though I didn’t have a ton of food in my pantry, I had gotten myself pretty well stocked up early last year and had plenty of good groceries to still choose from.)

Some of the things I’ve made to use up pantry items include:
beef chili — used up rice, cheddar, ground beef, spices, dried kidney beans
tilapia with vegetables, sesame ramen noodles, and ABC + kale slaw (the slaw was delicious, but could have used another tablespoon of dressing) — used up tilapia, frozen vegetables, scallions, ramen, edamame, frozen zucchini noodles (not a fan, they were in a giant block and I had to chisel them off; that’s what I get for being too lazy to clean my spiralizer), and lemons
Southwestern(ish) salads — used up black beans, frozen corn, and pepitas
chia seed pudding — used up chia seeds
buccatini smothered in tomato sauce with pork, spinach, and mushrooms — used up mushrooms, pasta, and ground pork
quesadillas — used up cheese, caramelized onions, salsa, and most of my 6 pound pack of blue corn tortillas

Obviously, there’s a fair amount of variety in here, not just in the types of food I’m making, but also in the styles and cooking methods. (Slow cooked tomato sauce vs. pan fried quesadillas, for example.) Typically, when I’m planning my meals for the week, I try to keep my eyes on both what I have and what’s on sale and build from there.

3. Work smart, not hard: using your phone/tablet/computer to make your life easier.

I have downloaded every grocery store app to my phone, and my grocery lists are usually made on my phone. When I’m really in the swing of things, I skim through the weekly grocery ads during commercial breaks or on my bus rides to/from work. After I’ve made an initial pass through, I start building my list with help from Ibotta.

As of right now, I don’t really use paper coupons. It’s not because I have any issue with using them; rather, I need to replace my coupon binder. The rings are a little misaligned and my inserts go flying everywhere, so it’s become more hassle than it’s worth right now. (Cue crying emoji here.) I’ve also learned that my favorite coupon clipping site has decided to close for good, so I need to find a new, reliable source of coupons for those weeks and months when I need to supplement my own collections.

Yes, I am one of those people who brings the entire binder to the grocery store with me. I do it so that I can easily revamp plans if necessary and just in case there’s an unadvertised sale on something, an item on clearance, or even just a sale I’ve missed. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen a great price for something I’ll use and was able to use coupons on it.

I also use my American Express whenever possible at the grocery store. I get 3% cash back on grocery purchases, and once I’ve started achieving my financial goals, that will become my primary grocery store card (instead of using debit cards; it just makes more sense to get 3% back instead of 1% back).

I’m also starting to track how much I spend on groceries, as well as how much I’ve saved on coupons/rebates apps on each trip. As of right now, my total is $84.56, and I anticipate I’ll spend another $10 or $15 on groceries for myself this week. It’s a little bit high, but this is a work in progress. With the budget I’ve set for myself, I have another $35.44 before I go over budget, which really is a lot of money for one person, even with 12 days left of January. Once I get a little more in the swing of things, I have plans to challenge myself to hit a certain average percentage of savings. Because I do a lot of shopping at Trader Joe’s, this one will prove to be a little difficult; Ibotta only has a handful of items available for Trader Joe’s (usually cereal), so it might be hard to hit an average savings of 50% or more. Then again, by shopping at my local Acme, I could plan things well enough that I’m average 70% or more in savings there, which could even everything out. I’ve also been toying with dropping my budget down even further a few months in (or at least keeping my budget at $30/week with a goal of $20/week).

Lessons learned so far….

One of the really great things about this little challenge is that I’ve begun better planning my meals for the week. Before I started doing this, I’d just grab a muffin at work, wash it down with a canned coffee drink, chug 3 or 4 sodas, and then eat something like baked ziti or mac and cheese for dinner. Without even thinking about it, I’d have blown through $45/$50 on meals at work! I only got tripped up this week because I overslept and didn’t pack my lunch, so I had to buy a sandwich yesterday. Even so, I think I’ve only spent about $9 at work this week, and I have two days left of my workweek.

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