Getting a grip on the grocery spend

Because you have to do grocery shopping so frequently, it’s the area you are most likely to regularly “blow out” the budget. The weekly grocery shop is also probably the area that you can potentially save the most week in and week out.
Food is also an emotional issue, it’s one of life’s greatest pleasures. Food is fundamental to the way we celebrate; we also comfort and reward ourselves with food (some of us a little too much it’s fair to say).
The weekly grocery shop doesn’t just include food though – we are also now bombarded with new product ranges in the supermarket aisles every week, everything from Flat screen TV’s to outdoor furniture is for sale alongside the milk and bread. The subtle message is that these things are also necessary, just as the milk and bread are necessary, after all the supermarket or grocery store is where we go to buy our essentials.

Most people tell us they aim be in and out of the supermarket in around 45 minutes or less if they can manage it. So if you need to buy on average around 30 items*, factoring in the various brands, choices, special offers and out of stock items, you’ll have to make somewhere in the order of 205 financial decisions in 45 minutes, that’s roughly one decision every 4.5 seconds.

With grocery shopping there is a tendency to simply put all the stuff you fancy in the trolley, with little or no discrimination, do we need it? can we afford it? -because its groceries and we want it we just buy it regardless.

At the checkout we agree to pay large sums of money – hundreds of dollars, without a second glance. We pay using credit or cash flow cards, so there is little connection between the brain and the wallet, we are detached from any sense of our money actually exchanging hands, and most of us are already thinking about something else before we’ve even left the store.

We do need to buy food but this is a really dumb way of handling such significant expenditure so I ‘m going to explain a much better way to go about doing it.

If you want to eat well and spend less then you will need to approach the grocery shopping strategically. We have a method for dealing with each part of your shop so you only buy what you need, with the result that you have money left over at the end to spend on other important things in life and we’ve received thousands of letters and emails from people who have been staggered at how much they’ve been able to save and how it has transformed their financial outlook.
Each step is simple and easy to implement. It will cost you nothing at all to revolutionise your shopping methods and will save you thousands of hard earned dollars.

Menu Planning – see more here…

Step 1 – plan the menu.
For busy people the menu plan is an essential household management strategy.
Often the hardest part of feeding everyone everyday is actually just deciding what to make. There are either too many choices or not enough, and the last thing any of us needs at the end of the day is a hard decision.
Menu planning is the easiest way to take the stress out of the daily dinner dilemma. What have I got? What will everyone eat? How much time do I have? What happened to the meat I thought I’d defrosted?
A little bit of thinking ahead can save you a bundle in last minute takeaways, and emergency dashes to the supermarket. It will also allow you to factor in or use up any stock piles in the pantry or fridge so you have less waste.

The Menu plan is a stress buster on so many levels, it helps you to reign in the grocery spend by reducing over-stocking and eliminates the time wasted doing expensive emergency dashes to the supermarket because you are missing a vital ingredient you were sure you already had.
The plan can accommodate supermarket specials and seasonal variations and the dishes you choose can be selected to suit the age and stage of the household. The menu plan also makes it much more easy and achievable to cook double batches, squeeze in some baking or get a head start on tomorrow’s meal when today’s is under control.
So if you want to spend less, then get smart and plan your meals before you need them. Here’s how.

Getting set up:
11 recipes- that’s about how many the average household can manage to stock ingredients for, remember how to make, and coerce the family to eat. Households tend to shop and stock for all 11 of their regular dishes even though they are actually only going to make 7 each week.
What does your repertoire of 11 dishes consist of, and how much do those dishes cost to make?
Make a list the dishes that you most frequently eat, include breakfasts, lunches and snacks in the list. Then roughly work out which are your most expensive dishes and why.

We frequently know in advance which are our busiest days – in your menu plan, prepare for those days. When we are busy sports training, parent interviews or the late shift… all conspire against us and make quick fix meals from the supermarket or takeaway seem very appealing.
Plan to include some dishes that are quick to make for those kinds of days such as risotto and fresh veg, or spicy meat balls in pita bread with salad, or a stir fry and rice. Fast food from home is much cheaper and healthier than fast food from a store. Alternatively you could just make a double batch of something the night before and use it again the following day. Or break out the slow cooker and have dinner waiting for you when you tumble in the door. This is a great option when you have flatmates or teenagers coming and going at all sorts of different times. A Big batch of soup and some rolls will give everyone a fast filling meal dirt cheap.

Things to consider when planning your weeks menu are:

Review the menu plan regularly, are there small changes you can make that will save you money? Can you substitute one family favourite with another that is less expensive to make? Can you use a cheaper cut of meat or make it go further with extra veg

What kind of plan will work best for your household? You can plan a weekly, fortnightly or monthly menu.
Think about what is in season, what is on special and what special events you need to factor in (entertaining, sleep over’s, birthdays…) The menu plan can be as simple as dinners for every night of the week, or can go as far as all meals and snacks.
In our house we don’t plan all our food to that degree as I’d feel like I was following a diet (horrors). But some people, particularly larger or very busy households find it a real stress buster. Some households just rotate the same menu week in and week out, if this will work for you and not bore you senseless then the fewer decisions you have to make the better.

Take into account what day is your regular shopping day – it’s likely that the day before shopping day, you will be getting low on fresh produce so factor that in – a stir fry might not be possible but cottage pie with veg from the freezer might.

Choose main course meals with the cost of the key ingredients in mind rather than out of habit.

Reduce your reliance on ready made kid’s meals. If you are feeding babies and toddlers, choose recipes that can be served pureed for baby or chopped for toddlers, as well as appealing to adults. Left over’s can then be frozen as future kid’s meals for when you are having something unsuitable for them.

It’s easy to assume that dinner is the most expensive meal of the day but a household of teenagers or flat mates can hoover up an alarming amount of Cocoa pops, and fancy toast over a week of breakfasts. Cornflakes, Ricies, weet bix and oats are an economical choice for everyday, keep treat cereals as treats.
Lunches, snacks and pre packaged bars can cost loads, and drinks – juice, fizzy, coffee, wine, and beer all slip down without drawing a lot of attention.
You may find that “adjusting” the menu subtly is the way to go. Split fancy cereal with a cheaper brand or only have it once a week and let the porridge and weetbix make a comeback, maybe save the juice and fizzy for weekends.
A few minutes spent spreading stuff on slices of bread for the lunch box, instead of snatching a few packets of snacks will make a big difference to the grocery budget within a couple of months.
The menu plan lets everyone know what they can have when. Stick it up where everyone can see it.

Record what you spend each week and determine which weeks menu’s were the tastiest, healthiest and most economical, and then if you want to take it a step further you can combine them to create a master menu.

The dg Principals are Shop smart, Eat healthily and in season, Make a little of something luxurious go a long way. These 3 “dg” principals can be applied to any household or budget, freeing up cash for other important things in life like debt reduction, education, holidays and handbags.

Before you begin you need to establish what you are currently spending on groceries – Look up your bank or credit card statements for the last month and write down how much was spent on groceries, not just in the “big shop” but including any other smaller trips where you may have picked up one or two items. Total them up to get a true figure of your weeks grocery expenditure – yup takeaways too as they are a food expense.

dg principal No. 1. Shop Smart

Make a list of all your basic “pantry essentials” these are all the things that you need to have in stock to keep the family ticking over – Not what you LIKE, just what you NEED
The essentials list should start with fresh fruit and veg. You can make a wider variety of nourishing meals by combining fresh produce with basics that you already have to, such as flour, rice, eggs and seasonings, than by using canned or frozen veg. Those things do have their place but with fresh produce you get more for your money, and you can do more with it. Provided that you buy what is in season, you may need to consult a “seasonal availability calendar” to familiarise yourself with what is in season. More on the seasonal stuff later.

Under Fresh Fruit and Veg on the list- note down basics like onions, garlic, potatoes, carrots, apples – whatever you would consider the basics taking into account seasonal variations.
Next you are going to list your basic range of staples – things like flour, bread, eggs, milk, butter, oil, baking powder, salt, dried pasta … Just the basics that YOU use regularly. Not what you think you might use if you ever get around to dusting off that recipe book…Your pantry staples.
Next you will write down a basic range of cereals – actually this is a basic range, copy it: Cornflakes, Weetbix, Ricies, Rolled Oats.
Add to your essentials list a basic range of canned foods, then a basic range of seasonings, sauces and spreads. Then you can include a basic range of frozen food – remember, it’s just the essentials – peas and beans are fine, ice-cream and frozen pizza? – They’re going on that other list.
The essentials list looks quite different from one household to another as age; life stage and personal taste differ hugely.
After you’ve listed all your essential food items you need to add meat, and then essential cleaning products. You may want to look at our examples as a kicking off point Link to essentials list

Your essentials should include the basic components of your regular meals It should also include baking basics and in some cases there may be things that are essentials now but if circumstances change then they can be omitted from the list. I use an asterisk to mark items that may not always be considered essential – chocolate chips, salami and ham, any store bought beverages including wine… If we are in a tight spot, those are not essential, when we can afford to have them I would include them in my regular shopping.

When we were living at our most frugal – 4 people and a grocery budget of $50.00 per week, we had a very meagre range of essentials but we never ever went hungry, there was always something I could make from the “essentials” a bowl of porridge for breakfast, a batch of scones for lunch or a pot of soup, vegetable pizza or simple curry. Once you have made your essentials list its time for that other list. We call it the Luxuries list.

Make a list of Luxuries-
On here you are going to write anything your household likes, but is not essential to your survival. Ice cream, wine, fancy cereals, little dangly things to hang in the loo, biscuits, packet meals, fancy oils… kids foods like nuggets or lunch box bars… Essentials and luxuries list

These lists are really important – it’s impossible to differentiate between a need and a want in the 4.5 seconds thinking time you have in the supermarket aisle. What the lists do is establish quite clearly the priorities, and puts some boundaries around what we buy.

Draw your Grocery money in Cash: Having established what you actually, really, honestly spend at the supermarket and food suppliers you will need each week to draw that amount of money in cash – yes, I know it’s a lot!

Only shop once a week: If you are serious about saving money you need to decide that you will only go to the supermarket once a week.
If you think you can pop in for 2 minutes and buy one thing you are deluded. You’ll be in the supermarket for 20 minutes and you’ll probably buy 5 or 6 things.

If you run out of something, go without, or make do till the following week, you’ll be amazed at what you can manage. You will use up all the old cans of bean salad in the back of the pantry and learn to use the ingredients that you bought for a special recipe you never got around to. Necessity is the mother of invention.

Avoiding the emergency dash to the supermarket and takeaway will save you hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Over a few weeks you will get to know how many litres of Milk you go through a week, how many loaves of bread, how much loo paper and how long the laundry powder lasts. So you will not be over or under stocked. Use your essentials list to note how many of certain things you need to buy or how frequently you purchased bleach or oil.

Avoid semi prepared products and ready meals- It’s expensive to eat ready prepared meals and nutritionally they have severe limitations. Homemade food tastes better and is better for you but the palates, particularly of young people, have become very conditioned to the flavours and textures of processed foods.
Decide not to buy anything you can realistically make yourself.
Many people are surprised when they realise how much they depend on convenience foods, and have assumed readymade foods are available, because they are difficult or time consuming to make at home.
While that is the case with some specialised items, much convenience food is simple everyday stuff. Pasta sauces, gravies and seasoning mixes, salsas, dips and pastes, pizzas and soups, vegetables gratins, baked goods and breads. All bottled, bagged, boxed, snap frozen, tetra packed and canned for our convenience.

So why bother making a recipe from scratch?
Homemade food is more flexible than readymade, leftovers can be frozen, ingredients substituted and improvisations made to accommodate specific dietary needs. Seasonings can be adjusted to cater for individual likes and dislikes. Recipes can be adapted to maximise ingredients that are in plentiful supply, with the added bonus that the homemade version will often be cheaper, with superior flavour and nutritional value and contain no additives, preservatives or ingredients you can’t pronounce.
There are some brilliant convenience foods-tinned tomatoes, Baked beans, tinned sweet corn, stock, tomato paste and basic frozen veg and I wouldn’t be without them as they are inexpensive and versatile, just be selective.

In deciding not to buy anything you can realistically make yourself, it’s important to accept that what is realistic for one household may not be realistic for another. Likewise you might be able to manage more “from scratch” cooking in a few months as you’ve had more experience, or less because you’ve had triplets!
Pasta sauces, Pizza, casserole seasonings, biscuits, muffins, curries, muesli, lunch box bars, Mexican meals, Sushi, Asian stir fry type meals etc are all readily available in semi prepared or take away forms. But the home made versions are easy to prepare, much cheaper, generally much better tasting, depending on the recipe of course. Also usually a lot healthier as they will have lower fat and salt contents than processed food, more vegetables and no preservatives.

Just doing some baking is a good place to start – two or three, easy, “makes a lot”, recipes for muffins and biscuits can save you heaps. The more you do it, the better you get at it and the more it makes sense.

Extra for the really keen
Keep a price book – Alphabetise a notebook and write in all the products that you usually buy and their prices. The price book enables you to accurately determine when something is on special (supermarkets often put little labels up which imply that the price has been adjusted even if hasn’t).
When competing supermarket mailers come through the letter box you can choose where to shop. You can price your grocery shop before you do it, even cost out your favourite recipes using your price book.
You can even draw up a table in the back, note down your weeks recipes from the menu plan and tally what you spent on groceries that week. So you can establish which were your least expensive weeks and why.

Now to the shopping
If you are only going to shop once a week you need to take a good list with you. Write your shopping list with your menu plan, essentials list and luxuries list in front of you.

Check the menu plan: Monday – honey pork stir-fry.
Check the essentials list: Do I have the veg I need? Fresh, frozen
Do I have the staples I need: noodles, oil, soy sauce, honey…?
Do I have the meat I need? Can I substitute with something I already have?
Am I including a luxury or treat this day? Nah, it’s Monday, harden up

And so on through the menu plan. Then check your essentials list for other staples such as butter, cheese, spreads, baking needs, cleaning or toiletries and so on.

Choose one or two luxuries – only if you can afford them.

You should have drawn the grocery money in cash as discussed earlier.
If so, armed with cash and your list you are ready to do the supermarket shopping. If something is not on the list then you don’t need it – even if it’s on special, you don’t need it. Don’t browse; you will inevitably see things you want if you go looking.

Shop around
In the supermarket: Buy the supermarkets own brands- House brands can save you lots of money. With several quality levels on offer I use the basic range for staples like flour, milk etc and the Supermarkets “named” range for most other items. You may need to experiment a bit – we are still not converted to house brand baked beans but I haven’t bought a bag of branded flour in years!

Fresh Produce – the supermarket is rarely the best value place to buy meat and fresh produce. Find a local supplier for these items. People often ask me if it’s really worth going to several shops for groceries – by the time you’ve used the fuel and time surely it’s just cheaper to buy everything in the supermarket? I have done costings on this and the savings are substantial.
For example I can save $137.00 per year just buying my spuds from my green grocer, not to mention the carrots, onions, apples, mandarins, lettuce, tomatoes, and bananas etc… all of which are cheaper in the green grocer.
Those hundreds of dollars will pay for more than a little fuel. The savings add up to a family holiday!

Meat – Meat is even easier to cost compare, as it’s not much affected by seasonal availability and we tend to stick to a range of cuts that the family likes and fit our menu plans. Simply compare the price of lean beef mince and boneless chicken breast in your supermarket with the price offered by a wholesale butcher. The difference is significant and if you have freezer space and have planned your menus, you won’t have to go every week.

Review what cuts of meat you most regularly purchase and are they appropriate for your budget? We don’t eat steaks and fillets – they’re too pricy but we enjoy delicious casseroles, beef and burgundy pies and rich spicy chilli’s and curries all of which use inexpensive cuts of meat so we can afford to add a splosh of wine or other little bits of luxury.

Go for quality over quantity. I don’t buy cheap nasty meat to save money. I buy the best we can afford even if it means we have less.

Where do you buy your meat? I love the convenience of the supermarket but it is rarely the best value place to buy meat and fresh produce.

Do you know which are the cheapest cuts and which are the most expensive? Check out the Meat cuts section at

Do you know how to cook less expensive cuts of meat?

If you are big meat consumers, consider buying a whole or ½ lamb or ½ a beef from your butcher. They’ll cut it into its respective portions, including making mince and sausages, along with chops, fillets, steaks and rest. It’s a lot of meat but the price when averaged out is MUCH cheaper than buying a bit each week… My local butcher charges roughly $6.50 per kg for beef and $8.99 per kg for a Lamb (NZ prices). If you can’t use that much consider going in with a family member and see if you can share their freezer too.
Around 30 % will be what we would consider to be gourmet cuts, the steaks, fillets etc. The remaining 70% is useful for stewing, casseroling etc

Ethnic ingredients – check out the Indian and Asian grocery suppliers in your area, many items will be substantially cheaper than in the mainstream supermarkets.

After the shopping when you have completed the shopping using these techniques you will have cash left unspent – we call this “grocery surplus”. Use this fund for bulk buying on specials, paying unexpected expenses – doctors, school trips, babysitters, gifts, debt reduction, treats …Quality of life stuff

Get the household on board with your budget goals; discuss the benefits of the choices that you are making – if you need to, introduce an incentive to encourage co-operation.

dg principal No. 2. Eat healthily and in season

Learn to cook with pulses and legumes, lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas and the like are very cheap and are one of the foods nutritionists recommend we eat more of, because they are an excellent source of protein, iron and fibre and contain no fat. We use both instead of or in addition to meat.

Pulses have been a staple for peasant cultures for generations and the cuisines that they developed are what we now eat in Restaurants! I could create those dishes at home using the same principals that the peasants did, basing the meal around seasonal vegetables with an appropriate carbohydrate – rice, pasta, pulses, grains, breads or noodles – which are all very cheap, often high in fibre and low fat and used a small amount of good quality lean protein. Seasoning is what gives the dish its identity, and is often the least expensive part – a teaspoon of spice only costs about 28 cents.
Instead of using 8 sausages to feed 4 people, I could use 3 really good quality butchers sausages, veg, plump creamy cannellini beans and tinned tomatoes and make a delicious and much healthier cassoulet style meal it’s a really healthy way to eat.

Eat in season – It can be difficult to identify what is in season when you buy produce in the supermarket because there are ‘Plums” for example available all year round, they may have been imported at vast expense and refrigerated until they’ve lost all vestige of flavour but they are there.

At your local fruit and veg shop it’s likely the most plentiful foods are the ones e at the peak of their season and are therefore the cheapest and freshest. We eat them till the seasonal banquet rolls around and something else comes into season.

Eating seasonally ensures constant variety – instead of having frozen peas every night, we might be eating corn and courgettes and aubergines and tomatoes for several months, then more broccoli and cauliflower, celery, pumpkin and sprouts.

We use lots of seasonable vegetables in our meals. Generally ½ the evening meal will be vegetables. I’m not talking about a plate full of boiled carrots and peas. We use the carbohydrate and vegetable portions of the meal to make the meat go a long way. Add extra vegetables to a family casserole and serve it in a ramekin with a cobbler topping, or in a pasty or wrap it in a flat bread or crust, fill the plate with some more inexpensive seasonal produce and you’ll not only extend your housekeeping money you’ll improve your health.
We borrow culinary styles and techniques, flavour combinations and seasonings from some of the best and most exciting cuisines in the world so the dishes are interesting, fashionable and delicious, they are also affordable.

Gradual changes to your household food culture are easy to introduce if you plan ahead.

Swap beef burgers for bean burgers or bean nachos instead of mince…Its not just cheaper it’s healthier! You’ll need to have a recipe handy and the ingredients in stock to make the changes actually happen. Having the menu plan decided ahead of time makes it easy.

A glance at the menu plan also gives you a quick overview of the household nutritional profile. How many red meat or fish meals are we eating? Are we eating any pulses? How frequently is pudding on the menu? Do our meals include sufficient serves of fruit and veg and are we intending to eat one thing but actually buying takeaways?

dg principal No.3. Make a little of something luxurious go a long way
Using the luxuries list and choosing only one or two luxury items (and only if you can afford it). You will become far more careful about how you use luxury ingredients to keep meals interesting and you will find you use less. Having access to some of your favourite foods or ingredients helps you stay on track, a little treat may prevent a major blow out later on. The trouble is that without a list we see so many things we like (that aren’t essential but are nice) we end up over spending.
Restaurants use a little bit of a luxury ingredient to “sell” the meal on the menu. “Fettuccine with smoked salmon in a light creamy sauce”
There may only be a little bit of smoked salmon in the dish but the use of the luxury ingredient is clever. A little bit imparts a lot of flavour and by telling us it’s in there; we are predisposed to expect a delicious creamy smoked salmon flavour.
Home cooks often neglect the power of description.

What’s for dinner? Leftovers.

The more basic the meal the more effort I make over presentation. Stack the corn fritters in the middle of the plate, arrange the salsa decoratively, garnish with something…

A restaurant never admits to serving left over’s, but a daily specials menu is something we have come to expect when we are handed a menu. If the chef has an ingredient that needs to be used, you can expect it to feature in the specials menu.

Make sure your diners know there are good things in there – we’re having a delicious homemade calzone with spicy beef, roasted vegetables and parmesan cheese in fresh yeast bread crust. Last nights left over chilli with the remaining roast pumpkin from the night before, spread onto a fresh pizza base, bit of parmesan grated on then the another pizza base placed on top, edges pinched together and baked – gorgeous, filling – leftovers.

How the savings work: If you have followed the strategies in this chapter, drawn your usual grocery money in cash and shopped following the dg principals you will have come home from doing your grocery shopping with cash left over. Hooray! We call that “the grocery surplus”. Find an envelope, write Grocery Suprlus on it and put it in a safe place. Under no circumstances tell teenagers where you keep it.
Each week you want to try and add to it. The money in this envelope should initially be directed at debt elimination. When you have no outstanding bills or unpaid accounts then money that accumulates in grocery surplus can be channelled into other areas – bulk buying on supermarket specials for example revert. This doesn’t mean you revert to spending it all like you used to though because as that money mounts up it can pay for holidays or outings, it can be directed into savings or the shoes and handbags fund – its up to you!
If you don’t draw your grocery money in cash, and just apply the principals, leaving the grocery surplus in the bank account it will disappear – I’m not sure exactly how or where it goes, it just seems to be eroded by other unconscious spending. There is also no substitute for the delight of leaving the shops with cash in your hand that previously would have been spent. Actual physical cash is a powerful motivator. How much you save is up to you.