Money-Saving Grocery Shopping Tips and 3 Frugal Meal Ideas
Before we get started, let me just admit that I am not the primary shopper or chef in my household. When it comes to the former, I do assist more times than not but, as far as cooking, my skills are pretty much limited to pasta and sandwiches, whereas my wife has a culinary degree. So, for this article, I enlisted her help to offer you a few tips for saving money at the supermarket and share some of our favorite low-cost meal ideas. Here it goes:
Supermarket Shopping Tips
Tip 1: Try digital coupons
A couple decades a go, it suddenly seemed that every grocery store chain started switching to a new model under which shoppers would need to join a “club” in order to get the best prices on the groceries. In most cases, this didn’t really benefit consumers much as they would need to offer up their personal info in order to score what were (for the most part) regular sale prices before. However, in more recent years, those little keychain tags and club cards have grown more powerful thanks to digital coupons.
To see if your grocery store of choice accepts digital coupons, first try visiting the chain’s site or maybe even downloading their mobile app. In my experience with chains like Hy-Vee and Ralph’s (part of the Kroger family of stores) there’s typically a way to register your loyalty card and connect it to an online account. Once that’s done, you can locate the store’s coupon page and load what you want onto your card.
Now, I’m not much of coupon clipper overall, partially because I’d feel awkward forcing a cashier to scan a dozen coupons when checking me out. That’s exactly why I love digital coupons — they are automatically applied with just one easy scan of your card. This also means you can use them at the self-checkout kiosks. For those reasons and more, it’s definitely worth looking for what your local supermarket offers in terms of digital and mobile coupons.
Tip 2: Make multiple lists for different stores
If you’re anything like me, you probably have a favorite grocery store you enjoy shopping at (in my area, that would be the Hy-Vee). Unfortunately, the stores that provide the best shopping experience rarely also offer the best prices. Furthermore, one single store may not have the lowest prices for every item on your list.
When my wife and I first moved to Springfield, Missouri, it took us a couple weeks to get the lay of the land and tour of all the local supermarkets. As we’d check out new stores, we’d pay close attention to the prices on what we’re buying and what items each location had that another didn’t. From doing this, in about a month’s time, we had a basic blueprint of what items we should buy where to maximize our savings. For example, essentials like milk, eggs, and cereal are purchased on our Aldi runs while most other items are purchased at the convenient Walmart Neighborhood Market. There are also a couple of one offs — the great price Food4Less has on La Croix makes it worth stopping by every so often while Hy-Vee gets our business when we’re looking for something special to make —but, for the most part, we divide our shopping between those two mainstays.
Now, depending on the grocery store situation in your area, this plan of attack may not be an option. Similarly, if you place a high value on your time, this also might not be for you. But, if you have a number of supermarket options in your vicinity, this really can save you a good amount of money — especially when discount locations like Aldi are in the mix.
A classic strategy for saving money on goods is to buy in bulk. Heck, that’s the principle that chains like Costco and Sam’s Club are built upon. However, when buying in bulk, it’s easy to go overboard and end up wasting money overall.
While my wife and I have considered getting a warehouse club membership a few times over the years, we’ve decided against it for one simple reason: there are only two of us. For families feeding more faces, a weekly trip to Costco may make lots of sense and more than justify the yearly fee. But, for couples like us, there are only a handful of items we’d pick up in such volume.
This isn’t to say that we don’t still buy some items in bulk. In fact, in most cases, we’ll opt for a larger size when it comes to items we use most and won’t go to waste. For example, we’ll regularly buy the 20-pound bag of rice (for reasons that will become apparent in the frugal recipes section), which offers an even lower cost per ounce price point than smaller portions. Additionally, while we don’t often buy red meat, we’ll buy pounds of steak and ground beef when our local market has a good sale on combo packs and then freeze what we don’t plan on using. Speaking of freezing…
Tip 4: Don’t be afraid to freeze
Not too long ago, I came across an article by Gina Ragusa at Mic where she discussed using your freezer like an emergency fund but for food. I had never really thought about it in such terms, but that’s actually a brilliant comparison. Not only can your freezer help you reduce waste by making your food last longer but it could also serve as a great backup for when times are lean.
First, many items can live in your freezer for months, with uncooked meats potentially even lasting up to a year according to the USDA. With that in mind, consider what types of items would make sense to have on hand just in case your funds run low… or you forget to go to the store. However, while packing your freezer chock full of foods on standby may seem like a good idea, you’ll also want to make sure you leave enough room for more frequently utilized foods that will need some freezer space as well. Plus, whether due to malfunctions, power outages, or other incidents, your frozen emergency fund could end up getting spoiled, so be reasonable about how much you tuck away.
Frugal Meal Ideas You Need to Try
For a few months straight, my wife and I adopted a new weekly event we dubbed “Pizza Friday.” As the name implies, this was where we’d celebrate the approaching weekend by ordering a pie for delivery while relaxing and watching television. To be fair, this didn’t seem like the worst monetary decision since we could often score descent deals on our orders and have plenty of leftovers for subsequent meals, but those delivery fees and tips did add up pretty quickly.
In an effort to change things up a bit, one Friday night my wife decided to try her hand at making a homemade pizza. After about three slices of her handcrafted buffalo chicken pizza, I turned to her and informed her we were never ordering delivery pizza ever again. Of course, that hasn’t been entirely true, but Pizza Friday has continued in its homemade form ever since.
What’s really great about Pizza Fridays is that it also gives us a chance to be creative and try new things. We’ve gone snooty and done a red wine and garlic chicken pizza, crossed genres and made a turkey taco pizza, and even tried out stuffed crust a time or two. All of these creations were built on a simple pizza dough recipe, which my lovely wife will show you how to make in the video below.
Homemade pizza recipe
Feeds 3-4 people
Pizza dough ingredients
1 Tbsp active dry yeast
1 Tbsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
2 cups flour (1 cup + 1 cup on reserve)
2/3 cups + 2 Tbsp lukewarm water
Olive oil (as needed)
- Add yeast, sugar, and salt to one cup of flour.
- Pour in water while stirring the flour, yeast, sugar, and salt.
- Add flour from reserve as needed until the dough forms a ball.
- Knead the dough in a bowl or flat surface and continue to add flour as needed.
- Continue to knead the dough and add flour until it no longer sticks to your finger and bounces back when touched.
- Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Preheat your oven to 375° Fahrenheit.
- Apply olive oil to baking sheet to prevent sticking.
- Place rested dough on the baking sheet and press evenly into desired shape, size, and thickness.
- Apply any sauces, toppings, and spices you desire.
- Bake for 7 minutes, then rotate the tray.
- Bake for another 7 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and crust is golden brown.
- Wait for pizza to cool and then enjoy!
One of the best budget food discoveries we ever made was when my wife came across an eight-pound pork shoulder on sale at Walmart. Typically we end up sticking to chicken as it’s much cheaper than beef, but the idea of pork hadn’t really occurred to us. At the price of about $1.50 a pound, she decided to take a chance on the pork and see what we could use it for. First we tried a regular BBQ pulled pork, which was pretty good, but the real magic came once we tried to emulate the famous carnitas served at Chipotle (and presumably real Mexican restaurants, but I’m lame).
To make this, my wife would first cut up the behemoth pork shoulder into portions, using one and freezing the rest for subsequent meals. Then, once she has the meat she needs, she sears it to add some flavor and start the cooking process. After that, she places it into the slow cooker with some garlic, Montreal seasoning, and any other desired spice or flavors. From there, the meat pretty much cooks itself, reaching completion in about four hours. At that point, the meat will be so tender it falls apart, creating that “pulled pork” style.
There are two main dishes we use this carnitas for, the first being a knockoff of the aforementioned Chipotle. For our burrito bowls, we’ll add lime juice and cilantro to white rice, top it with carnitas, and add some shredded cheese. My wife will also add salsa and perhaps even some guacamole, but neither of those are for me (again —lame). The other main option we do with carnitas is as a topping for our pizzas, which happens to be one of my wife’s favorites. In fact, the leftovers of the carnitas pizza are arguably even better as the pork gets a nice crisp on it from the additional oven time.
I. Love. Rice. Like, if you put a bowl of plain, steamed rice in front of me, I’m set. That’s why it’s no wonder that rice is often my side dish of choice. Luckily for me, rice is also a very affordable dining option. Although this thrifty starch rarely gets to be the star of the meal, one dish where it gets top billing is fried rice.
A trick to making good fried rice is to start a day ahead of time, as using cold white rice will make it easier to cook. However, if you didn’t prep your rice ahead of time, no worries — fresh rice is still usable, if not ideal.
Once the rice is ready, the first step is to sauté some garlic and any vegetables you want to soften, such as carrots, by adding about a tablespoon of oil to your pan and cooking them for a few minutes. Then it’s time to add your rice to the pan and mix in some soy sauce as you go. Like with pizza toppings, fried rice is also very customizable, so feel free to add whatever type of meat or protein you want (just make sure any meats are fully cooked before you add them) along with any other vegetables and seasonings. Once all of the ingredients are properly mixed and cooked, you’re good to go.
Now, I could obviously eat fried rice on its own, but I understand that not everyone can. That’s why I recommend making it more of a meal by adding a few potstickers or gyoza to the mix. Both Walmart and Trader Joe’s sell delicious frozen potstickers that pair perfectly with fried rice, help fill you up, and are affordably priced. Yes, now that we’ve given the pizza guy the boot, soon enough you’ll be able say “goodbye” to your Chinese delivery spot as well. If you’re interested in more tasty but cheap recipes checkout out these crockpot recipe ideas.
Buying groceries as opposed to eating out all the time is already a fiscal win — but why stop there? By utilizing digital coupons, being smart about where you shop, and stocking up on the right items, you can save even more money on groceries. Plus, with a few tasty and thrifty recipes in your repertoire, you can enjoy the flavor and fun of eating out without the expense. Bon appetit!
Also published on Medium.