Thank you for sharing your grocery budget ideas and challenges! We all have similar needs that overlap, despite differences in our situations.
Donna, I need to learn from YOU...you're already doing these things and I'm not sure anything here will be very groundbreaking as far as a new approach! Everyone who sends in their tips ads to the collective wisdom here...thank you!
One For The Cart
Remember the practice of coffeemaking where a certain amount goes in per serving and then lastly another scoop gets added "for the pot"? When it comes to groceries, we can adopt a "one for the cart" practice which, for a lot of us, is something that can slowly add up if we apply it to our weekly (or whatever increment) food gathering, especially if you shop at the store. If you're fortunate enough to not have to shop at the store for most of your food needs...I want to be you! (and hopefully am working my way there) But for now, my world includes storebought items.
My former mother-in-law always grew a huge garden and was a study in cooking the best homemade meals ever for her husband and six ravenous boys. She canned, froze, preserved, pickled, baked, knew her local butcher by name, and could sniff out a sale better than most. Years ago, I'd look at wonder at her fully-stocked shelves located not only in her kitchen but also overflowing into storage areas such as the basement. While being really frugal, she and her husband had the money to buy extra quantities of staple goods and storage foods, a lot of times at Big Box stores or through mail order, or to stock up when there were really good sales at local shopping centers. She recycled her glass jars to hold a lot of the overflow, and she had quantities of nearly everything from dried beans/lentils, rice, flour/grains, every sort of home-canned good, canned goods from the store, spices, herbs, liquors (mostly for making tinctures for her herbs, teas, freezer items, personal care and hygiene products, etc. She leaned hard in the direction of keeping all those things natural and organic as possible.
But in those years, for my own family of three with one car and a slim income, our budget was so to-the-bone that I shopped weekly for THAT week alone, it was difficult to buy ANYTHING in extra quantities for building up a reserve, and most small reserves quickly became depleted of necessity when we'd have company over or cook foods for celebrations and holidays. Plus, I was purchasing a lot more processed foods back then...things like canned soups, breaded meats, boxed cereals, flavored individual packets of oatmeal...etc etc. That's changed today.
I was always so frustrated not to have some good reserves at hand to select from then...a surplus to serve as backup and also inspiration for putting together meals not requiring a lengthy list of ingredients from the supermarket. Think of it...if every time you wanted to make biscuits or a baked item you had to make a separate trip to the store for EACH of the ingredients...over and over again...who would bake? There are some items most of us keep on hand so we don't have to...flour, baking soda/powder, salt/pepper/some spices, and so on. I needed to do that on a bigger scale than for biscuits, though...so I could make full meals from what we had on hand. This was VERY difficult for me to learn when the budget was so cut to the bone.
But thankfully, that's gotten better, mostly because we've cut out nearly all processed foods. This is really important as a first step for being able to purchase any reserve foods. I say nearly all processed foods because there are a few things I still fall back on for convenience or out of habit (one example, evaporated milk). WHAT I want to have in reserves has changed, too...now it's things that can make a meal without a laundry list of ingredients.
So what's One For The Cart? It's the one or two extras (cheap!) I make myself get when I have even as much as one or two dollars of wiggle room during a shopping trip to the store, namely my weekly trip for groceries. When I shop, since we're mostly getting fruits and vegetables that are fresh or frozen, I'll slip in long-storage items, a spice or two, or an on-sale "luxury" item (like a jar of olives, pimientos, honey, etc) to the tune of three or four dollars' worth to have as my back up. Or during the holidays, maybe that bag of chocolate chips that is marked way down the day before Thanksgiving, or the generic box of raisins and generic oatmeal. Voila...cookies ingredients for giftgiving during the year end holiday season...and so on.
(I know nearly everyone out here already does this...it's not rocket science. But it took me a long time to get the hang of it since we bought processed foods...the already-made cookies...for so long)
Certain places have better deals than others. This is where ethnic markets, discount stores and dollar stores, and sales items really count. Ethnic markets usually have spices and dried beans/lentils at MUCH lower prices than the regular grocery store, plus they have spice mixes. I'll write more on that later. Stores like Big Lots sell certain items at a huge discount in their food aisles, because in the middle of those boxes of processed foods there are things like garlic powder, Wasa wafers (that don't go stale!), imported chocolate bars, etc that are top dollar at the supermarket but are CHEAP there.
When I shop, I save the last dollar or two for an extra bag of those frozen veggies that are special or a bag or two of dried black beans, or the real vanilla extract that's on sale because it's the holidays....and so on. Are you good on frozen or fresh or canned produce, but always get short handed when it comes to spices? Make those your One For The Cart items the next few shopping trips and make a side trip to the ethnic markets and dollar stores to see how low you can go. The only way that's fun for me is if I hold onto a few of my dollars and make a fun sidetrip of it when out already running errands, not doing it when I'm flustered and in a hurry.
Most people probably already do this...so it's not so much a groundbreaking concept. It's just that I never really did it before. But buying those two extra bags of frozen limas and that couple cans of black beans here and there, and those little sacks of dried beans and split peas add up to MANY suppers of Veggies-and-cornbread, or soups, or hummus, or sides to a plate of fresh veg SO many times.
If you're organized, you can round out a really good collection of spices this way, a stash of dried beans/lentils, baking needs, soup ingredients, personal care items, paper goods, special celebration ingredients, brown bag lunch items, supplements/medicines, and so on...and can eyeball the stash to see which ones need to be re-stocked eventually.
Anyway, the One for the Cart is something I realized I now do instinctually, and was worth at least a mention. It's a way of having things on hand like that jar of roasted red peppers, some parmesan cheese, some olives, and so on that otherwise I'd be spending three times as much for (or in my case not using at all) to make a regular meal a little more savory, or to make sure there are backup provisions in case we're short one week...or on those night I accidentally scorch the soup!
I'd love to hear how you increase your reserve supplies without big outlays of cash, and what some of your favorite cart items are when you do :)