Maybe you’ve heard the phrase, “What gets measured, gets managed.” Regardless of who originally said it, those are some wise words.
But I could also offer a counter-phrase that is just as valid:
“What doesn’t get managed becomes a sloppy shit storm of total fucking chaos ending in shame and tears.”
I like mine better.
When I finally got serious about our grocery budget a few months ago, I knew that food was eating up a huge chunk of our paychecks. But I had no data to go on.
So being the numbers guy that I am, I decided to look back over a recent 12-month period to find out exactly how much we were actually spending on groceries.
My hope was that a retrospective analysis would provide two things:
- It would allow me to set a reasonable target for groceries in our budget
- It would show what opportunities there were for savings. If we spent an average of $600 a month vs $1000 a month, that had huge implications on forecasting.
A Year of No Grocery Budget
We do 100% of our shopping electronically–no cash–so it was easy to pull up old bank statements and find out exactly when we went to the store, and how much each trip cost us.
Keep in mind these numbers don’t include eating out at restaurants, lunches at work, random burritos, or stopping for coffee. That’s a whole other topic. This was pure grocery store activity.
Another important note is that, like many people, we would often get non-food items such as toilet paper, dish soap, and other household goods from the grocery store. But since I don’t have itemized receipts, so I was unable to filter these purchases out. To adjust for this, I took $85 off the top of the monthly total, since that’s average amount we’ve spent on those items for the past three months.
So here it is.
September 2018 – August 2019
|Visits||Total on food||Cost / visit||Cost per meal|
* Cost per meal is taken by dividing monthly expenditure by 60 (2 people, 3 meals per day, 30 days per month).
Some of these stats just boggle my mind. I knew we went to the store too much, but I honestly wouldn’t have guessed that we AVERAGED 28 visits to the grocery store per month. And in 4 out of 12 months, we went to the grocery store MORE than 30 times. How…why…
And $1300 on groceries in December? That’s an average of $43 a day. Insane.
Once these numbers hit me in the face, it was clear that we some work to do.
Frequency was clearly a killer.
I used to rationalize small, frequent trips as having an equivalent outcome to larger weekly trips. 21 meals is 21 meals, whether you buy it all at once or meal by meal. In the end, the food got consumed so what’s the real difference, right?
Here are a few key mistakes we were making with our shopping and food prep habits.
Stupid snack stuff
I spent (yes, I’m speaking just for myself here) a significant amount on random, non-essential snacks and filler foods such as cheese, chips, nuts, bars, drinks, pre-made wraps and sushi. They weren’t essential for survival or a part of any meal. They just tasted yummy and I wanted them.
Because I went to the store so often and each bill was relatively small, it was easy to justify these single-serving food items. An extra $5 onto a $30 bill is still just $35. Not bad, right?
But my problem was that I was thinking of these purchases in terms of whole dollars rather than a percentage of my baseline cost. A 17% increase is significant. And it added up to big bucks at the end of each month.
Not buying in bulk
We rarely bought things in bulk.
$26 for 3L of olive oil?? Too expensive! I’ll take the 500mL bottle for $6, please.
Yes, buying coffee in half-pound bags and eggs by the dozen it made our trips feel less painful, but this was straight-up denial.
There are always savings to be had when purchasing higher volumes, but we just weren’t taking advantage in order to spare ourselves the pain of a higher total at the register.
Now, we’ve gone to buying items like coffee, olive oil, peanut butter, potatoes, beans, frozen fruit, and protein powder in bulk…and it’s making a big difference.
Overly complicated recipes
We tended to go for meals with way too many ingredients. Marinades, spices, fresh herbs, a million veggies all make for great tasting meals…but really pricey ones too.
While that home-made raspberry honey vinaigrette dressing over the spring mix salad with radishes, cherry tomatoes, red onions and freshly shaved parmesan cheese tasted great…it was overkill.
We’ve since stuck to healthy, simpler meals that require less shopping and preparation.
A fist-full of spinach and a squirt of balsamic and olive oil works for me.
Not planning meals
The biggest liability with only planning one meal at a time was the wasted food. We would regularly have leftovers that went bad and unused ingredients that had no place in the next night’s recipe. And those little bits of waste each day had big consequences over the course of a month.
I’ve noticed that even planning three days in advance has made a huge impact on the amount of waste we generate.
A planned menu also means fewer trips, which makes it less likely that I’ll spend on other things we don’t need.
Not having a grocery budget
I’ve noticed this interesting phenomenon now that we shop on a budget: We seem to spend less without really trying that hard.
Before, each trip to the store existed on its own and was treated as a once-in-a-lifetime event. I was just there, shopping in the moment, for the moment. Yesterday was over and tomorrow would never happen.
But getting on a monthly budget allowed us to see the forest for the trees. It allowed us to appreciate the effect each trip had on the monthly goal, which naturally lead us to spending less.
It’s harder to justify grabbing things “just because” when you know they’re going to inflate your bill and make it that much harder to stay within your limit.
The good news
The silver lining in all of this is there’s plenty of room for progress. If we take that yearly total of $11,435 as a baseline, here’s what we could hypothetically save in a year if we spent the following monthly amounts on groceries:
|Monthly expense||Yearly total||Yearly savings compared to 2018-2019 debacle|
That’s pretty motivating.
In January 2020, when we started getting more serious with grocery planning and taking fewer trips to the store (14), we effortlessly spent just under $650.
February was even better with $540 going towards groceries.
Compared to the $1723 we spent on groceries in January and February of 2019, we’ve saved $533.
If this we can repeat our January and February performances, that will leave us with $4295 in savings at the end of 2020 compared to the damage we did between September 2018 and August 2019.
Financial goals seem much more attainable when you focus on the micro and start measuring.