I honestly get countless questions from family and friends about how I stretch our grocery dollar so far and still feed our family wholesome meals. It's not rocket science, but it does take a little planning. After typing lots of similar Email replies and responding to lots of questions, I figured it was time to put my system in writing. I hope it can help you save a few bucks!
Set a Budget
First and foremost, before you can evaluate whether or not you are saving money, you need to plan how much you want to spend. Setting a budget does not mean limiting yourself - it means allowing yourself to spend a certain amount. Setting a budget (or a 'spending plan', if that makes it feel less restrictive to you) means that you never have to feel guilty when you leave a store - it's in the plan! You have to decide what your "grocery" bill includes. Does it include paper products? Personal hygiene products? Diapers? Cleaning supplies? There's no right or wrong inclusions, so long as you decide ahead of time and account for all of your spending somewhere in your overall budget. (If you are interested, our grocery budget includes paper products, personal hygiene products, and cleaning supplies. Diapers have their own separate line in our spending plan, since they won't always be an expense).
To begin figuring where you want to set your budget, you should go back through the past several months to figure out what you have been spending. If you don't have the receipts, check your credit card or banks statements for transactions at grocery stores. Once you add up this total, ask yourself how often you think you've used cash at those stores and add a guesstimate of that amount. Likely, this total will scare you. That's okay - things will get better! And if you didn't know where you were coming from, how could you look back pleased with how far you have come?
Plan Your Meals
The number one way we have trimmed our grocery budget is by meal-planning. When the flyers come on Thursday, I look through and try to get dinner ideas that would use what's on sale combined with what I already have in the cupboard/freezer (leftover from last week, or from previous sales). I love to cook and to try new recipes. While planning our meals based around main ingredients being on sale, I look through recipes that I've saved to see what new thing we'll try that week. Being a planner doesn't need to be boring or repetitive. If you do nothing else - if you don't clip a single coupon or if you don't have space to stock up on sale items - simply planning your meals around the sales will still save you a bundle.
I write my menu plan on the same piece of paper as my grocery list, in case I get to the store and find a better deal or get a good idea. This happens often, like when something has that pink 50% off sticker at Superstore, which gives me an idea of something I could swap for one of my planned meals. For example: At Sobeys yesterday, they had ricotta cheese which was regularly $5.99 marked for $0.99 because it expires in 5 days. In the Sobeys flyer, there was a coupon for $0.75 off the identical size/brand...So I bought it for $0.25, which gives me a great excuse to try this recipe that I've been eyeing. I bought a second one that I'll use in lasagna or cannelloni, which I may freeze for an easy meal some other time.
You have to know prices for products you regularly purchase, because you can't just trust a sign that says 'sale.' Don't assume that buying in bulk is saving you money. For instance, buying yeast at Bulk Barn is a fraction of the price of buying it at any grocery store, but you will pay more for flour there. Similarly, don't assume that buying the generic brand is saving you money - combining a coupon with a sale on the brand name product provides savings that far exceeds that of buying the no name brand.
Part of knowing your prices is knowing what you are willing to pay. I have my 'ceiling prices' that I'm willing to pay for things and I choose not to go over that. Some everyday examples: $0.25 for lunch snacks (granola bars, etc), cheese at $1 per 100g, yogurt cups at $0.30 each, toilet paper at $0.21 a roll, garbage bags at $0.12 each, etc. When I find items we regularly use priced well below my 'ceiling price', I stock up so I won't have to pay regular price until the next sale rolls around.
Take Advantage of the System
Get rain cheques when the store is out-of-stock of a sale item. Sometimes we don't need the sale items that week, but if I go on the last day of the sale (Thursday), then they are out of almost everything. I get a rain cheque from the customer service desk,so when I do run out of the item, I can get the sale price. Sobeys and Superstore have a 30 day expiry on their rain cheques, but Walmart and Zellers will honour them forever.
You don't have to go to 10 stores to get the best prices. Walmart, Zellers, and No Frills will price match any flyer you bring to the check-out with you. (Sometimes Giant Tiger will have amazing prices in their flyer, but who wants to go there!?)
Note if the stores you frequent are member to the Scanning Code of Practice. You can read all the info at the link, but essentially if an item without a price tag scans up at a higher price than was listed on the shelf or in the flyer, you get that item for free to a maximum of $10. (If the cost is over $10, you get $10 off the item). If you know your prices and pay attention while checking out, you could be getting some of your groceries for free. Mistakes are made frequently, particularly on the first day of a sale before computer glitches have been caught.
There is little point in setting a budget if you aren't going to ensure that you follow it. If you don't want to go to cash-only spending (which I'm not a fan of), save your receipts and track them in a simple Excel spreadsheet. It only takes a moment of time, but just seeing the numbers add up in front of you is beneficial and can definitely help keep you on track. (I can send you mine if you want a starting point)
Above are the things that people often ask me about, but if you have another question or want some more ideas about meal planning, or want to know more "ceiling" prices, etc...feel free to leave a comment or Email me, and I'll get back to you!