Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Hour: How 60 Minutes a Week Can Save Hundreds of Dollars on Food

Since I started reading personal finance and food blogs about a year-and-a-half ago, I’ve tried dozens of new dishes, learned an obscene amount about index funds, and discovered that no topic on Earth drives women into a commenting frenzy like overpriced bridesmaid dresses. Yet mostly, I think more than anything else, I’ve realized how to save money and eat well at the same time.

For this, I owe tons of thanks to destinations like Money Saving Mom and Like Merchant Ships, who have long advocated things like grocery lists and menu planning. This kind of stuff never occurred to me in my early ‘20s, and The Boyfriend and I are much better for it now. We eat like the dickens and haven’t had to sell any major organs to finance peanut butter purchases (lately).

Yet, as our needs are ever-changing and Brooklyn is Brooklyn, I’ve gradually created my own system. Basically, it’s a mish-mash of everything I’ve ever read online (excluding Office recaps), crammed into an hour. And it might not work for some. But for others – it’s exciting! And it could save hundreds of bucks a month! And if you’re interested in trying it, the process is spelled out below! Woof.

Ah – but before your first Hour begins, a few preliminary steps are necessary. These may seem like a pain in the tuchus now, but they’re vital, and after they’re completed, things will run much smoother.
  1. Go through your fridge, kitchen cabinets, pantry, and any other food storage areas of your humble abode. Make mental notes of the staples you own, and chuck or donate anything that A) you can’t identify, B) is in an advanced state of decay or mummification, and/or C) is old enough to be carbon dated.

  2. If you don’t already know, do a quick Google search to find out which two acceptable grocery stores are located nearest to you. Make sure they have online circulars, note which day of the week they come out, and be sure to sign up for any discount cards or rewards programs next time you’re in the store.

  3. Find some form of coupon source, whether it’s through the Sunday paper or a website (,, etc.). Many of the online sites require the download of a special printer program, but they’re not terribly invasive.

Once you have these steps accomplished, it’s time to get rolling on your Hour. So, find a quiet spot, plug in your Macbook, jack up your iPod (to 11 of course), and start your timers.

00:00 – 00:15

In general, a supermarket’s biggest sales are found in its weekly circulars. The most steeply discounted items, called “loss leaders,” usually go for well under the regular price, since they’re used to lure customers into stores. They also tend to include produce, meat, dairy, and staples, which are healthier than processed foods.

Use the first 15 minutes of The Hour to comb each of your two selected circulars, and record sale prices ONLY for items you willingly eat. Look especially for staple items, so you can stockpile. Your list can have any format, but here’s a sample of mine:

Beans (Goya 14 oz cans) – 2/$1
Bread (Arnolds) – 2/$4
Carrots - $0.59/lb
Cereal (Honey Nut Cheerios 17oz) – 2/$5
Chicken (boneless, skinless breast) - $1.99/lb
Flour (Gold Medal 5lb) - $1.99
Mushrooms - $1.50/lb

Food Lion
Cereal (GM 13-17oz) – 4/$6
Grapes - $0.98/lb
Oranges – 10/$2
Red Onions - $0.59/lb
Pasta (Ronzoni 16oz) – 2/$1

Of this list, you may only be in the mood for carrots, chicken, grapes, mushrooms, oranges, and pasta. However, you might also consider buying beans, flour, and cereal, as you’ll probably use them in the future, and it’s rare to see such good prices. (Incidentally, a great side effect of writing all those numbers down: you’ll have a better idea of what food CAN cost versus what it USUALLY costs.)

Oh, and no worries if you prefer to visit one supermarket per week. You’ll generally get better prices if you try two, but with gas costs being what they are …

00:16 – 00:30

Lotsa bloggers consider coupons a waste of time, as their primary function is to get consumers to purchase goods they wouldn’t have otherwise. Yet, when applied carefully, coupons can be a great boon to one’s savings. The trick is to A) pair them with sales, and B) only clip ‘em for stuff you already use.

For instance, in this week’s Key Food circular, four boxes of GM-brand cereal were being sold for $6, total. I had two coupons for $1 off, meaning my final cost for the whole shebang was $4. They normally would have gone for about $16. Not too shabby, yo.

If you have the time, you might find it useful to gather coupons from the newspaper AND a few websites, of which is particularly good. One caveat, though – if you decide to print them off your computer, make sure your grocery store(s) accept(s) them. One of mine doesn’t. It’s a bummer. (Yeah, I’m talkin’ ta you, KEY FOOD.)

00:31 – 00:45

Based on what’s on sale and what you already have stocked, draw up a menu strategy for the upcoming seven days. It’ll prevent you from ordering out, and give you an idea of exactly how much food you need, keeping waste to a minimum.

This week, since chicken breasts are going for $1.99/lb and mushrooms are $1.50, you might want to make Light Chicken and Mushroom Marsala one night for dinner. For breakfast another day, maybe try French Toast, since you have eggs and syrup, and loaves of bread are on sale for $2. Anything goes, and you can use All Recipes, Epicurious, or Food Network to search for recipes.

When writing it up, your menu can be as simple as this:

B: cereal & fruit
L: PB&J & granola bars
D: Chicken, rice & carrots

Or as complex as this:

B: Me (cereal, soy milk, grapes), TB (cereal, soy milk)
L: Me (leftovers, orange), TB (sandwich, grapes, popcorn)
D: TB & Me (Light Chicken and Mushroom Marsala, rice)

For more examples try here, here, or here.

00:46 – 00:60

Finally, the easy part. When you have an idea of what you have, what you need, and what you want to make, it’s time to create a grocery list. It should include the sale items, plus any other ingredients needed, but not much else. Then, go forth and start buyin'. Just remember, STICK TO THE LIST. It’ll keep you from purchasing extraneous, overpriced, last-minute items that your roommate will eat anyway.

And that’s it. Hour’s done. Admittedly, this procedure might take more than 60 minutes the first few weeks. But once you get the knack, it’ll flow like mad. And the savings will be plentiful. Personally, I save more on weekly groceries than either of us make at work in an hour, which makes the process totally worth it.

If anyone decides to try The Hour, I’d love to hear constructive criticism, but in the meantime, readers – any suggestions? Do you see anything I could add? Or anything I could take away for streamlining purposes? The comments are open!

(Photos courtesy of Flickr member toriloveskitty, jupiter images and raw story.)

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Karen said...

Make sure coupons are really saving you money. I know they work for a lot of people, especially those with families. But I found that they don't save money for me - I just don't buy many items that are coupon-able.

Being a geek, I calculated it out with a spreadsheet a couple of years ago. I compared the price with coupon to the price I'd normally pay (so if I normally buy the store brand, I'd compare the store brand price to the price of the name brand with coupon). I kept track over three months, and by the end, I had saved some money. But once I factored in the price of the newspaper (which I normally don't buy), I ended up losing money. I decided it wasn't worth it. The caculation would be different if I could have gotten coupons for free, or if I bought more "couponable" foods.

Aryn said...

I like to keep my weekly menus in a little notebook so I can go back and see whether we've eaten a particular dish in the last month or two. That way I don't make jerk chicken with homemade tortilla chips and fruit two weeks in a row.

I also have a magnetic list on the fridge where we write down anything we run out of or are about to run out of (like margarine, which I don't use and therefore don't think to check.)

Aahzmandius Karrde said...

I don't do the circular/coupon thing. I mostly buy generics anyway, and am not into going to multiple stores if I can help it.

Like aryn, we have a magnetic whiteboard that items that are used up go on. Saves time in compiling the list.

The list is where I go to the extreme. I have a spreadsheet setup that I record what aisle the items are in, including a lookup table that tells me what order I hit those aisles in. After I mark the items I need,I sort by needed then order. So as I go through the store I pretty much check things off top to bottom. Avoids having to backtrack in the store and gets me to the checkout faster.

Brian said...

I’ve done the same thing off and on for several years, but in order to keep the process simple, I recently created an Excel-based “menu planner” for recording the circular deals, a spot to create the weekly menu and a couple other items to help with store shopping. If anyone’s interested, feel free to look at it at Weekly Menu Planner.xls. I have it up on the computer when I go through the circulars and recipe sites, print out the results as a grocery list, and hang it on the fridge as a daily reminder of what we planned to eat.

Oh, and I let my wife handle the couponing - it's actually her hobby (strangely), and due to her efforts we often end up with hundreds of dollars worth of product for pennies on the dollar (or free). We end up eating or using some of it *feel-good for the tummy*, but donate much of it to local charities *feel-good for the soul* and take a tax deduction for its value *feel-good for the wallet*.

Monica said...

These are great! Don't forget about "Manager's Specials" on items nearing their sell-by dates. I routinely get bread, cheese, and sometimes meats and produce for 50-75% off this way. This means that I've bought $3 ducklings and paid $4 per pound for organic tenderloin beef. For meat, I use or freeze the item within a day or two of purchase. For bread and cheese, I don't worry so much.

Amy K. said...

I check the Proctor and Gamble site, and only buy the paper on coupon Sunday (once a month). Because really, I know I won't read the paper, I'm just buying it for the $4 in coupons I'll actually use. My library has a coupon drop bin, I'm going to start cutting the extras and dropping them off there.

Unfortunately, none of my local stores take internet coupons. And the cheaper store doesn't have an online circular, so I pop in on the way to work and kick up a flyer every Monday,

Sarah said...

Good ideas! I keep a list of meal ideas to try, so whenever I see an inspiring recipe I can just write it down to make next month.

I have 3 preschoolers and try to shop once a month so they don't spend their lives in a store (plus we make use of a car and a pantry). Each month we shop at Aldi (cheap!), some local farms (healthy! good!), and Walmart (...), but I don't buy many "couponable" things either... (thanks a lot, Michael Pollan.) Then I get fresh foods at the nearby Food Lion when they are napping on weekends. :)

So my Hour happens once a month - I look at my list of meals (inspirations plus last month's meals and seasonal favorites), select about 20-25 (lasts a month with some meals that provide leftovers), and then make my lists - Farm, Aldi, Walmart, Fresh foods ordered by meal. Print my text file of menu / shopping lists / recipes, and I'm set for a month.

It is probably more than an hour, but I'd rather spend more time at the computer planning and less time in the store overall.

Anonymous said...

I totally have to echo your advice to use coupons on already discounted items. You can really get deals this way. Yesterday, I hit the market with my list and outside the store entrance found a cart filled with clearanced Don Fransisco Gourmet Coffees. Half Pound for $2.99 I think. I had a coupon for $1.25 off - $1.74 for gourmet coffee aint bad!


Sara M. said...

Thanks for the great detail and advice. This is really what i already do, but I'm trying to be more disciplined.
A couple questions:
I tend to put off coupon clipping until I have a pile of about 50 coupon inserts to sift through & then organize. How can I motivate myself to do this each week instead of every 3 months??
Also, I have 3 small kids & can't find a straight hour to do this. Do you think it would work to do each of the 15 minute sections on a different day?

Kris said...

Thank you for your comments so far, everybody! I'm definitely including a few in tomorrow's Comments of the Week post.

Sara, I think 15 minutes on different days would totally work. It'd probably give you a nice chunk of time to think about what you'd like to make, too.

As far as the coupons, maybe if you have an egg timer, you can set it for 15 minutes each week? That way, it's all said and done and you can get to the kids? Or, if any of your kids are old enough, maybe make it into a project for them? With safety scissors, of course. :)

Anonymous said...

Sara M.
I don't cut any coupons from the Sunday paper until I've gone through the weekly sale flyer. Every Sunday I write the date on the front page of the coupon circular and throw them in a drawer. Once I have my list made, I check the name brand items on my list against the coupon database on and then just cut the coupons I have for the sale items that week. This saves a lot of time cutting and organizing coupons that I may not use. I find my biggest savings is using coupons on personal care items like shampoo and toothpaste. I haven't paid for a tube of toothpaste in a year because it is frequently on sale for $1 and normally there is a $1 off coupon.

Anonymous said...

I didn't believe that couponing could save me money until I started getting toothpaste and cereal for free! Then I was hooked. I used to be a total generic girl. Now you'd think I spent lots of money...lots of name brands in the cupboard now.

Mrs. Micah said...

I really like the way you've broken it down. I don't do all of these, but spending time on the menu has been really helpful in planning our grocery shopping.

Btw, I'm having trouble with the popup comment form, it's not showing me a scroll bar on the site. I think I'll be able to get this to post... (good old Tab!)

Amanda said...

Great post! It's along similar lines to one I wrote about my grocery savings rule--basically I just don't buy certain items unless they are on for 25% less than the discount grocery stores in my area. I'm with you on the coupons, they can be great, or not so useful if you buy mostly whole foods. They sure come in handy when the item is already on sale.

If you're looking for more follow-up ideas, there may be couple in my post. I'll paste the link here if you're interested:

Karen said...

Also check w/your friends..they may have coupons for you. We sawp them in the playgroup I belong to. I also have got coupons from people off of our local freecycle.

chicagomomof4 said...

I already use a lot of these strategies. The Grocery Game is a website I've used in the past, but you have to pay a little bit for it and they don't always post the deals to coincide with my stores. I use coupons every time I shop and it's not unusual for me to save over $100 a visit when I combine sales with coupons. Our local Jewel will take expired coupons as well as internet coupons and they also have a preferred card and an online flyer with printable grocery list. Stock up on cheap sale items like frozen veggies and pizza. I got a freezer for Valentine's Day! Planning ahead saves time and money. Rachel Ray's magazine often shows how to use a few ingredients to make a week's worth of meals. You can really capitalize on this if you can buy things on sale or in bulk.

teacherval said...

I made a list on my computer, and I printed a bunch of copies. The list is organized according to store areas:
Meat, grocery, bakery, produce, frozen, non-food, dairy, etc.
This really helps speed my time in the store, and keeps me from passing those danger areas like the pricey ready made food areas.

Anonymous said...

I second the above post regarding markdowns on meat/dairy/bread. At my local Kroegers, I first scan the meat section for the orange markdown stickers. What a pile of money you can save on the stuff that must be frozen/cooked in the next day or 2. I had a great haul yesterday, 3 pkgs ground beef, 3 of ground pork and a nice roast I'll do in the crockpot, all marked down at least 40%. WIth Costco BOGO coupons I got 4 whole chickens for under $8. My coastal town has farmers markets open year round and tomatoes there are 99 cents vs. $3-4/lb at the grocery store. They also sell soft tomatoes $1 for a plastic bucket full so I can make a beautiful pot of sauce for next to nothing. This frugality has always come naturally to me, but it does take a little time. With the $ you can save, especially on meat, it's well worth the time!

Moriah said...

This is a great guide to weekly shopping and menu planning. It's the kind of thing that should be taught in home economics classes.

And I really like your blog concept. It's good to know there are people writing about good food that doesn't involve high-priced luxury items, and cheap food that isn't full of chemicals.

bookwormdragon said...

This sounds great, and is something that I have recently started doing for myself.
On several sites, people have mentioned the cost of buying a paper. Why would you need to buy a paper? All the grocery stores in my town offer their weekly circulars for free in the store - the same circular that shows up in your Sunday paper, and you can take as many as you wish. Also, in my county, you can get a free paper delivered to your mailbox which is basically all those circulars wrapped up in a tiny local paper. If you live far away from your grocery stores or make very few trips, I can see where buying a paper would save you money, but there is no need to buy more than one in order to get duplicate coupons. Instead, make note of the coupons you want duplicates of and then tear them out of the free circulars right at the store.

Anonymous said...

Coupons are a great help, but the real key is menu planning. My son and I have a two week menu plan that we try to stick to. And we have Crab Casserole every Friday.
It is our very favorite so we don't mind eating it every week.
With your menu planned all you have to buy is what you need for the week. It really has saved us.
Thanks for all your good ideas.

Bill in Houston said...

One thing to be sure to do is use a coupon on an item you'd need or would normally use. I see the coupons for a certain brand of food I don't normally eat but think, "Hey, that'd taste good." Thing is, I wouldn't normally buy it. According to my wife I'm quite the couponer now, and I do most everything listed in the 60 minutes a week (being a compulsive list maker and chief cook).

funkyncheap said...

have couponing down to a science and even in Canada, where we don't get the deals you do, we do pretty well. And our stores take printed coupons muhahaha. So this week at one store they have ocean spray on sale for $1, the small bottles and well if didn't find a printable coupon for $1...I didn't buy one, I bought 60 and being the sale is on for another week I will go back and get more. I also got cartons of egg whites for free with a coupon. I never use a coupon unless I am getting it free or almost free. I also have 5 grocery stores that I go to. Some weeks I go to them all, sometimes only one. I go in for the lost leaders and leave. Also track when the sales are on. For example one a year a store I go to selling large bottles of dishwashing liquid for $1 reg. $2.88. I buy 24 and that gets me through the year with a few to spare. The sales ia always in May. Many companies and stores have items that go on lost leader sale 3 to 4 times a year, track it and buy enough to get you through until next time. There are many groups and boards online that swap coupons also called coupon trains. I do these a couple times a year. As the coupons are coming from all over Canada I often get coupons from others parts of the country that weren't released in my area. And don't forget to write or call compaines and ask for freebies or trial sizes. Quite often I get coupons for a free full size product - known as fpc in coupon cirlces. They want your business and see it as a small investment to possibly win you over as loyal customer for life. And that is another thing, don't be loyal to any the best deal for you.


I also do my grocery list on my computer with the menus prepared as well - print it all out - easy.

I also have a 'spring' menu; summer one, fall and winter menu so I can buy what is in season.

If I should see something on sale, I do a replacement immediately when I'm in the store; I try to be sure that some recipes are interchangeable, so I can vary the meat, poultry, or fish if it's a sale item, and save money.

I rarely use coupons, but I do check all the store specials to make sure I'm getting those items on sale.

I stock up in bulk on things that can be stored for the long-term.

We eat out once a week; after we do the grocery shopping and put the groceries away. This way it's always a 'day out', and a 'night out', and we always pay for that meal out from the grocery allowance wth no problem.

I'm 68 years old, so I've been doing this for 50 years, and it works well. Before I had a computer, I used to type my grocery lists and menus; run them on the copier at work, and that was perfect for me.

Anonymous said...

I think that if you really want to save money couponing you need to combine the coupon(s) with items on sale in the weekly flyer.And you have to be careful not to succumb to the "I'm getting a bargain if I use this coupon" because that may or may not be true. With couponing as with nutrition, you need to pay attention to the details. Read the labels, compare prices...if generic is cheaper and comparable in quality forget the coupon. Very honestly, many times the cost of a brand name item that is on sale is cheaper than the generic item once you apply the coupon.

Such good advice, CHG. I have just reiterated what you had already said. Sally


Angel said...

It's not exactly a coupon but...

... I keep my spice rack overflowing and use spices in blah dishes to give it a new flavor instead of investing in completely new/additional ingredients like cans of sauce or a new meat.

I know of at least ten different ways to make gumbo and only 2 of them call for "Cajon/Creole spice." Cheap eats!! My two kids really appreciate my ingenuity in the kitchen. They never know what I'm going to whip up. They've also learned to be more adventurous diners.

After you've compared the more expensive spices with the cheaper ones, most of the time you'll find that they are just as good. Why pay $9 for a jar of cardamom when you can get it for $5, right? Unless you're making Indian dishes every day for a month the stuff'll last you quite a long while.

Awesome article. Thanks!!

MikeHoss said...

My wife is a coupon fanatic and often we end up leaving the store with them owing us money (or we throw a pack of gum in to make it so we actually have to pay them).

Her tricks:

Research if any grocery store in your area. Then look at at all the ads and bring them along when you go to the matching store. Wal-Marts usually match ads, but if you don't like them (we don't) then chances there is a locally run one down the road.

Walgreens has a thing called "Register Rewards" and CVS has something similar. Essentially, if you buy $X worth of one product, you get a $Y gift certificate back. So here's the deal -- you can divide up your purchases into several transactions. So you can buy 2 transactions work of stuff to get $X products, and then get 2*$Y money back, and the use them on the last transaction. Yes, it takes some planning, and yes, you should do it only on items that you will use, but it's amazing how much things cost at the end of the line. And, no, Walgreens' employees don't seem to mind.

Lastly, we don't buy bread at the store. Yep, you read that right. We have a large bakery in town that not only delivers bread to the local grocery stores, but also bakes bread for different restaurants in town as well as the local school districts. They also have a nondescript bread store at the front of their main factory. They bring fresh, yet overstocked bread there to be sold for pennies on the dollar. We're talking a loaf a wheat bread that at the store would be $3.99 for $0.79. They also have products there that you can't get in the stores -- like pizza dough for $1.07. Surely we aren't the only ones in the country with deals like this!! We go once or twice a month and freeze the bread until we need it.

Those are my hints. This is a great blog -- let's keep it up!

Anonymous said...

I also utilize Wal-mart's price match system. There are a couple other stores that are a farther drive for me but it doesn't cost any extra in gas to look through their ads and get the store I'm already going to to price match. I do use coupons but what I do is look at the store circulars, plan my menu, then utilize the web to look for coupons for items on my list instead of looking for the coupons first. Once a month I do drive to the larger next town over to Sam's to buy certain things in bulk. I mostly buy meat. I can get lean ground beef for 2.14/lb instead of 3.98/lb. Of course those prices probably vary by what part of the country you live in. I just divide the meat up into ziplock bags and freeze it. You do have to be careful in the club stores. Its really easy to overbuy. About once every other month I go to a bread store (also in the next town over so trips are combined with the sam's trips to save gas) I can get loaves of bread for between 50 and 80 cents.

Holly said...

I have my coupon book that hold the coupons that I clip so when I am looking at the circulars, I can see if I have a coupon for that paticular product. If I don't have a coupon for it, then I wait. I cut out 99% of the coupons in a circular because I will never know when I need a steak rub or a box of bandages and having a pre-clipped "coup" is fabulous-and many times I get 2 papers on Monday mornings for the same price as 1.

I spend about 1/2 of a day making my lists and doing my pricings and store runs, but my kids love helping by finding the items in the stores, seeing the money I save because they know it will go to their college funds, clothing funds, and yes, the wonderful vacation funds-as I take the money I save in coups and instantly divide it up into those 3 accounts and so my kids are all about helping me shop and clip and save because we usually end up with a great family vacation that they helped contribute to every year.

Anonymous said...

Stores usually have patterns to what goes on sale at a particular time (steaks one week, chicken the next, pork the next, and so on), so I have made a file of menus that utilize a particular item more than once during the week, and use pantry staples and things I've bought earlier and frozen for the other meals.
For example, when ground beef goes on sale, I might buy 4 lbs, freeze 2, and use the other 2 to make 3 main dishes (tacos monday, meatloaf wednesday, and spaghetti with meatballs friday), and on the other days serve dishes that use eggs or beans for protein, or other meat that's already in my freezer, plus pantry staples. I feed myself and my husband 3 meals a day for an average of $60 a week doing this. We eat out about two dinners a month.

Anonymous said...

Since we found out about my daughters tree nut allergy we have had to re-think how we shop and coupons have for sure come in handy - we don't buy generic anymore because most of them have allergy warnings on them so our grocery bill has gone way up. Using coupons has saved us and your streamlined approach seems really easy - I usually spend 10 min or so every few days researching new recipes and blogs (like yours :) for ideas. I just need to get some ink for my printer so I can start printing out my coupons too.