One of the biggest questions I get and have often wondered myself, is “What is the best way to grocery shop as a single mom?” The reason this is so challenging is eating healthy can be expensive and there may not seem to be enough time in the day to go grocery shopping. Then if you add on cooking the food when you are exhausted, that is another challenge. One of my biggest budget challenges has been the expense of groceries. I would set a grocery budget, but yet I struggled to stay within that budget. The biggest reason why is that I was an undisciplined and frequent shopper. I bought things that I didn’t need. I would go to the grocery store to buy 10 items, but yet I would walk out with much more, and at times I would forget to buy the things that I went into the grocery store to purchase. I remember one time where I actually went grocery shopping three times in one day because I would get home and realize that I forget something. This was a waste of gas, time, and money. Because I went to the store often I frequently purchased things that I didn’t need. Being an undisciplined shopper meant I frequently veered off-track with the items that I purchased, but because I was grocery shopping so often this really magnified the problem. Imagine getting 10 extra items with each shopping trip and then going to the store 3-4 times per week. This is a lot of extra money I was spending.
Understand Your Most Critical Items
The biggest shift happened when I realized why I was going to the grocery store so often. It turns out that I visited the store often to purchase milk for the twins. Since I have twins, I go through a lot of milk yet my grocery shopping patterns didn’t reflect this reality. I didn’t buy enough milk when I visited the grocery store, which resulted in extra trips throughout the week. Therefore, once I identified what was on the critical path and adjusted my shopping habits accordingly. As background, The Balance has a great definition of the concept of the “critical path.” They define it as, “This path is the sequence of events that if any are delayed, will delay the entire project. And in even simpler terms, the critical path is the sequence of tasks that will take the longest to complete the project.” When I looked at this from the perspective of grocery shopping, I flipped it a little to encompass the items that if I run out of will throw off my entire grocery shopping strategy. What are the things that I consume the most of that I must keep on hand at all times? Once I understood that I started to evaluate how much I go through in an entire week and how much space I had in the refrigerator to bulk buy. Just the simple act of understanding the consumption patterns in the household helped me to save money. Once I understood this, I was able to reduce my grocery shopping from 4 times a week to 2.
Once I started to understand how to shop, I was able to make more changes. I share 8 of the things that I learned below in this post. Also, if you are looking to reduce your grocery spending over the next 30-days, then check out this free grocery reduction challenge here.
Time Your Spending
Instead of making special trips to go to the grocery store, I started to time my shopping for when I was near the store. As I evaluated my schedule, I was able to pick the days that worked the best for me to go. For example, I evaluated when I would be near the grocery store and when I would be able to go home immediately after I went shopping. Once I understood and committed to those days, I knew how much I needed to buy in each trip. I made my biggest grocery purchase in the beginning of the week and then I used the second trip as a smaller restocking of the critical items that I needed. Knowing the days that I committed in advance to go to the grocery store helped to also reduce the temptation to go outside of those times and made my schedule a bit more predictable and easier to manage.
Create A Grocery Budget
Have you heard of the phrase that there can be too much of a good thing? Well, that is true with grocery shopping. Grocery shopping is great because it helps us to stock healthy food and prepare us to plan ahead to avoid take out and buying lunch. However, without an appropriate grocery budget that encourages reasonable purchases and minimal food waste, then that good thing can become bad. Therefore, to stay on track, evaluate your grocery spending over the last 3-4 months and also think about how much food you throw away and what items typically get thrown away. Once I understood my monthly grocery budget, then I could back into my weekly budget and then hold myself accountable.
Minimize Food Waste
Food waste is a huge area of wasteful spending. Did you know that an average family throws away up to $2,200 worth of food annually (National Resources Defense Council)? That is throwing money away. That’s an area that you can target immediately to reduce spending. Just imagine what you could do with an extra $2,200/year ($183/month). For a while, I would stock up on fresh produce when it was on sale because I had the intention of eating a lot of fresh fruits and veggies. However, the fresh produce would get moldy and spoil. That good intention became a waste of money. Therefore, I needed to create a grocery budget based in reality and not wishful thinking. Becoming aware of how much I purchased at one time, eating the leftovers before cooking a new meal, and limiting the amount of fresh produce to what can realistically be consumed helped me to drastically reduce food waste.
During the prior sections of this post, we started to touch on meal planning. This is something that I still struggle with. It’s just hard for me to sit and plan my meals ahead of time, but when I have done it I have been successful at further reducing my grocery spending. I think that the challenge that I had was that I would spend the time to plan all of my meals for an entire week and create a shopping list all in one sitting. Although I’m working to get to that point, I’m not there yet. However, I know many single moms who swear by meal planning. On Sunday, they look at the store circulars to see what is on sale and then they plan their weekly meals around what is on sale. I do something similar but not as formal.
What I do is I keep food staples, which are things that I consume frequently and go with a lot of items. Food staples in my home are things like rice, pasta, spaghetti sauce, beans, bread, chicken, etc. Therefore, when I go to the store I make sure that I always have these items on hand so I can quickly cook a meal. Generally, the meals will be some derivative of these items. I will add in other meats or fish as they are on sale. Although I do not have a formal meal plan prepared when I go to the store, I have an idea of what I need to buy based on the general consumption in the household. Again, this is why it is so important to really watch and evaluate how food is consumed in your household. Even if you aren’t at the point of creating a full meal plan you can still reduce your spending just based on what you typically buy.
One more tip, if you are ready to start to explore meal planning. Start off small. Some people visit multiple grocery stores to stock up on the items that are on sale, but I realized that didn’t work for me. I spent more time driving to and searching for sales that I got overwhelmed and stopped. Therefore, I stick to 1-2 grocery stores and that is it. I make it work. Also, if you are beginning to meal plan, then plan 3 days in advance. Keep your staples on hand and plan 3 days in advance or until you go back to the grocery store. Then for the remaining 4 days of the week, either stock up on the things that you need for the rest of the week on your next grocery store run or “shop” your refrigerator or pantry. Shopping your refrigerator or pantry (i.e. making use of what you already have) is another great way to minimize food waste.
Know When You Are Buying Take Out
Another part of timing your spending is to understand the days you plan to purchase take out. The reason why is that buying prepared food or dining out will reduce the need for groceries that week. If you find that you bought take out after you purchased groceries, then make sure that you freeze the meat or leftovers so that it doesn’t get wasted.
Buy Frozen Produce
Frozen produce isn’t just for smoothies. I love frozen produce because it saves so much time and it is less expensive than buying pre-cut items. Another benefit of frozen produce is that because it is frozen so soon after harvesting, it retains much of its nutritional value. Therefore, keep your favorite fruits and veggies on hand. If you want to make something like a stir-fry, then put the frozen veggies in your meal. I love eating healthy, but I just don’t have the time to spend all day doing it. If it isn’t easy, then it just increases the temptation to buy takeout.
Buy Whole Chicken
Buying a whole chicken is cheaper than buying things like chicken breasts. When you buy the entire chicken you get more food for less. I have a friend of mine who can make a whole chicken last a week for a family of 4! Instead of making chicken the main dish, she adds it to beans, veggies, and potatoes. After she cooks the chicken, she immediately carves it up and puts it into different dishes so her family can have some variety throughout the week. Then she even boils the remaining bones to create a chicken broth that she then uses for chicken noodle soup.
Once I started to buy the whole chicken, I realized that I saved so much money. I would put the chicken into different pasta dishes, fried rice, burritos, and stir-fry for some variety. Although I haven’t quite gotten to an entire week yet on a whole chicken, I’m spending way less than I did with buying chicken breasts. However, if you aren’t ready to make the swap to the whole chicken, then purchase chicken thighs. They are less expensive than the breasts and still taste good.
I’m listing this one last because of the time that it takes to do this. However, if you are able to successfully use coupons, then you can save a lot of money. When you search the coupons, just do a quick glance for the things that you need immediately and then save the coupons that you will use later. Then discard the rest. Once you do that they check out the following sites, MoneySavingMom.com and KrazyKouponLady.com. These sites will help you to see what is on sale and how to match up your coupons so you can save the most money.
Grocery shopping can be a challenging area to reduce spending, but with a little time, you will start to see that cost go down. The key is to be patient, continue to evaluate your spending, and avoid food waste.
Aisha Taylor is a single mom of twins, personal financial coach, work from home entrepreneur, and #1 Amazon Best Selling Author of the book “5+5 FNPhenomenal Ways to Save $100 This Week Without Killing Your Lifestyle.” Aisha has been featured in ESSENCE, Jet Magazine, and Black Enterprise. She is also the Founder of FNPhenomenal (Frugal –n- Phenomenal), a movement designed to help single moms create a vision for their lives, craft a financial strategy to support that vision, and show them that phenomenal living is possible. It’s time for you to be Financially Phenomenal!
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