Updated on 10.31.10

Review: Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half

Trent Hamm

Every Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance book or other book of interest.

cygCut Your Grocery Bill in Half is the follow-up to America’s Cheapest Family, a very solid book on frugality by Steve and Annette Economides from 2007 that I quite liked.

Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half seems to be a detailed expansion of the second chapter of their first book. The focus here is on groceries – mostly food shopping, but a little bit of overlap on buying other household products.

Is there really enough juice in that topic to fill up an entire book?

1. Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half (or More)
The book opens by making clear the fact that changing your grocery shopping habits isn’t a magic wand that will instantly reduce the costs. Instead, it’s a combination of techniques, most of which become both easier and more effective with practice and repeated use. In other words, saving money on groceries will seem like a ton of work for less savings than you expect at first, but as the tactics become more familiar and natural, they’ll take less time and effort and earn more savings. I’ve certainly found this to be true in my own life.

2. The Power of the Plan
A grocery list. A meal plan. A pantry inventory. These are all tools that make it a lot easier to maximize your grocery dollar, but they all required advance work and planning before you go anywhere near a grocery store. Successful grocery shopping – at least in terms of bang for the buck – relies a lot on doing advance work. Of course, this advance work also saves you a lot of time when you’re actually in the store.

3. Shopping to Win
Here, the authors list a big collection of specific grocery saving strategies, devoting a page or two of text to each one. They’re quite varied, which means that some will be useless to you and some will be home runs but the two groups will be different for each person. The one I like is the one about aged beef – beef is often better with some aging, provided that you prepare it well when it’s actually ready in your kitchen.

4. Couponing – One of Many Ways to Save
Some people swear by it. Others find it useless. My take? Couponing works to a small extent as a component of a lot of other strategies. My opinion is that people often refer to couponing when they’re referring to a big pile of interacting strategies, of which actual coupon use is just one part. The authors address the big complaint that many people use against coupons, which is that they encourage unhealthy eating habits. They make a very good point countering that – coupons don’t cause bad eating habits, people do. Just because a coupon exists for an unhealthy food doesn’t mean you have to use it.

5. Cooking That Will Save You Time, Mone, and Sanity
This chapter is another big list of specific saving ideas (devoting about a page to each one), this time focused on cooking. Buy in bulk. Cook once a month and freeze. Spice, spice, spice. Cook with your spouse. Start a “meal swap” club (something we’re trying to get started… and something I’ll discuss in a future post).

6. Stocking Up and Organizing – Store It, Find It, Use It
If you buy lots of stuff in bulk, how do you find it when you need it? A big key to all of this is keeping the stuff you have on hand organized so you know what you have and can find it when you need it. The best way to do this is to simply keep an ongoing pantry list, where you list all of the food items you have stored along with notes on where to find them. You can also use this list when making a meal plan or a grocery list so you know what you have on hand without digging in the cupboard. Microsoft Excel is a great tool for this.

7. Economizing Equipment – Powerful Money-Saving Tools
It’s good to have some basic tools on hand to make cooking easier. The Economides list a lot of different items here, most of which I agree with. Surprisingly, one of the best things we’ve ever purchased is our KitchenAid stand mixer, which we use for all kinds of things from making homemade bread to preparing mashed potatoes and cookie batter. I’m also a big believer in eventually getting very good, very durable kitchen equipment. A Teflon-coated pan hits the trash in a few years, but a cast iron pot is forever.

8. Family Dinnertime – Building a Stronger Family at the Dinner Table
It’s statistically proven: families that eat dinner together have lower incidence rates of teenage pregancy and juvenile delinquency. If you have children – or even if you’re married without children – strive to eat dinner together and, ideally, prepare it together. Meals can be a very social event that goes far beyond the direct nutrition you put into your body.

9. Feeding Your Kids for Less
What do you do when you have a family full of mouths to feed? Have lots of low-cost snacks (what fruits are on sale this week?) and involve your children in the whole process of meals, from planning to shopping to preparation to setting the table, so they gain an appreciation for the whole process. Our oldest kids are four and three and we’re already integrating them into this process.

10. Where and How to Eat Out for Less
The easiest solution for saving while eating out is to not eat out. However, that’s not the ultimate answer for many, so how do you do it? This chapter offers a lot of advice – don’t be afraid to use coupons, take home a doggy bag, go simple with the beverages (I recommend water), don’t get “upsold” to more expensive versions of what you ordered, and so on. The best solution really is to just not eat out, even at a very “cheap” place (where you’re getting really dodgy food quality).

11. Gardening – Grow It Yourself and Be Healthy
Gardening can also save a lot of money, not just in the produced vegetables, but in the extremely low cost entertainment it can provide for many hours during the summer. The trick is to grow a variety of vegetables and, when you have excess, to store them properly by freezing them and/or canning them. There’s nothing better in January than having many pounds of garden-fresh tomatoes canned or frozen, just ready for use.

Is Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half Worth Reading?
If you’ve never even thought about your grocery bill and your dining out bill as ways to really save money, this book will be a home run for you. Many of the techniques you can use to trim your grocery bill are quite easy and this is a spectacular collection of such tips.

On the other hand, if you’re an experienced frugal grocery shopper and food preparer, you’ll find a lot of tips that make you say “No kidding?!” with a few tips here or there that will be of use to you mixed throughout the book. If you’re willing to search for some treasure, this one will still be a worthwile read.

I found several interesting ideas in the book that we’re going to try, even if many of the tips felt like repetition of the things we already do. Does that make for a good book? I say yes, because it has ideas for beginners and old hands alike.

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  1. Cheryl says:

    I’ve found that coupons are mostly for processed foods which we don’t use. It’s mostly not worth my time to go through the coupon fliers to glean one or two coupons we would use.

  2. Wesley says:

    I find that due to what I will call a lack of self control, it is better for me not to go through coupons, generally I end up spending more money than I am saving.

    I have to say I enjoy soda and chips, things that seem to have coupons quite often, which I try not to buy or consume.

  3. Beth says:

    I don’t think this book would be helpful for me as a lot of the strategies don’t work for those of us with food allergies or intolerances.

    It would be nice to see a book tackle cooking for one or two instead of always focussing on families. Sometimes you just get sick of the leftovers!

  4. Out of the 11 tips I follow only 3 – organizing, stocking up and cooking. The others are just too time consuming. When your busy with school, work and kid activities there is little time for anything else.

    I tried the couponing for a while and found it so time consuming. The ads were timed to not work with the coupons, it was pointless for the little money saved. A coupon for 25 cents on a $10 dollar item didn’t make sense.

  5. deRuiter says:

    “A Teflon-coated pan hits the trash in a few years” This is so true plus you’ve ingested some of the Teflon along the way, as has your family. Don’t buy new cast iron pans, they are mostly poorly made with a ROUGH cooking surface. Go to a few house, estate or yard sales, and find some old cast iron pans with silk smooth cooking surfaces, the exterior doesn’t matter, although with old pans the outside will be smooth too. If you get Griswold, Wagner Ware or “My Pet” brands (the better pans are marked underneath with a foundry brand, and no, a “Crackerbarrel” marked pan is not old, and the surface is not good, it’s pebbly). Run like the wind from any cast iron pan marked “China” or “Made In China” as they are poorly made with a coarse cooking surface which will never release food easily and cleanly, they are junk. A bit of rust or corrosion is no drawback, it will make it easier to negotiate a good price. Once home, if there is heavy gunk build up, usualy on the exterior, but occasionally on the cooking surface, a session with wire brush on electric drill will get down to the iron. Then with FINE steel wool or Brillo, clean off the rust. Wash pan in hot soapy water, dry and coat with a thin sheen of cooking oil applied with discardable rag or paper towel. Bake the pan in a 350 degree Farenheit oven for one hour and allow to cool down with oven door closed. YOU’LL HAVE A FABULOUS, SAFE COOKING PAN WHICH YOUR CHILDREN WILL ADOPT WHEN YOU’VE DIED OF OLD AGE. Cooking in cast iron is healthy because you ingest minute amounts of iron in the food cooked in the pan, as opposed to ingesting Teflon. Cast iron cooks evenly, and will last for generations, pretty good for a pan from a yard sale costing $1.-$8. Remember, buying used is good for the economy as the money goes directly to An american, not the Chinese, you save cash because the price of a used pan is much less than buying new inferior pans. It’s good for the environment because you buy an existing pan and natural resources are not taken to make new stuff. Don’t forget to toss that Teflon pan into metal recycling instead of the trash, it can be made into something better, or a new Teflon pan for a family who likes eating teflon along with their food.

  6. I think it just goes to show that grocery shopping is an art. It really is. And considering that groceries are the second biggest monthly expense in my household behind the mortgage, and probably so for most households, wouldn’t it be worth it to do what you can to save?

    If we were talking about only a few dollars here and there then who cares.

    But done right, grocery shopping correctly can save you tons!

  7. Bob S. says:

    Book looks interesting. My biggest weakness is organizing and letting things go bad. One of the best ideas for myself has been to make a list before I go to the store and stick to it. No impulse purchases. That has had a BIG effect on my monthly grocery bill.

    Say yes to cast iron…we’ve transitioned our cookware to cast iron and stainless steel. The most used items we have are a cast iron wok and a large cast iron skillet. We did buy new and it took ages to properly season but they are very easy to clean. In hindsight I probably would have looked for used (good tip deruiter).

    Other advantage to cast iron is its a lot better against intruders than aluminum…

  8. Rebecca says:

    Wow, I actually do all of these things already! But they do help, I feed a family of 5 on less than $400 a month. Two of mine are autistic and very picky eaters, I must eat gluten free and am vegetarian. I also only buy local, free range eggs and humanely raised meat.

    It can be done. Our garden and stand alone freezer are must haves for us, and we are contemplating another freezer for next year. I just purchased a large pressure canner so I can can veggies instead of taking up freezer space, so I have room for making more pies!

    I also believe in having the best kitchen equipment you can afford. We are working on upgrading our cookware, but already have a kitchenaid mixer 6qt, and a KA food processor which I love. And I was fortunate to have a retail job in the home department where we got credits for selling cutlery to receive free knives. So I have Wustoff, and will never use anything else. For me they make a difference. I make almost everything from scratch, including baked goods, bread, cookies etc.

    And coupons are out there for produce and frozen veggies, dairy and organics, even GF too! Not as many but I work with what I have.

    For me I make it into a game. I have a designated time to shop, and I go alone, no kids! I fuel up on caffeine and have a meal ideas list and food list as well. I work with loss leaders, but also buy many of the same things every week.

  9. Cat says:

    Not long ago you had a segment on hoarding. I have never watched the tv show but have been aware of this from the news, etc. While I believe this is “over the top” saving, 2010 has been a year of awakening for me just how seriously bad our economy has become: not just a recession but serious trillion dollar debt our country is in, no jobs and the future does not hold the great turn-around we were all hoping for.

    I have never lived in an area of flooding, snow storms, hurricanes or tornados. We had a power shortage once that lasted 6 hours. Minimalism seemed a great way to live.

    I am changing my mind. I am using coupons and sales to build up all foods, paper goods and any necessary things I can come up with to sustain a year’s worth of comfort living. My worry here is hyper inflation. Books like these you have mentioned I have been devouring because I am so new to this way of thinking. We also live on one income. Thus far we have been fortunate to keep this job with no problem but I don’t feel I can keep my head buried in the sand forever. I always thought it was silly to live in Florida, for example, and not have a garage filled with boards to cover all the windows should a major storm come my way instead of running to the store at the last minute to buy this when hundreds of others were there to do the same thing.

    This is how I am feeling about our economy today.

  10. Kathy says:

    I bought a brand new Lodge cast iron frying pan and dutch oven and neither were bumpy. Cast iron gets smooth over time because you have to season it.

    Couponing is not for everyone. I found that I ended up spending more and buying more of things I really didn’t need all for the sake of using a coupon. You have to watch the coupons carefully. Many will say something like $1.00 off when you buy three. If you will never use three before it spoils or before the use by date, you’ve wasted money. I found that at the store I shop at, it’s cheaper to buy the off label brand than it often is to buy the name brand with the coupon.

  11. Rebecca says:

    Cat: Hoarding can be a concern for some, and those who have those tendancies may not want to stockpile as it could get out of hand.

    We try to live a minimalist lifestyle, or I think simplistic is a better term for us. Uncluttered means we get better use of our living space. But I do have a fairly stocked kitchen and pantry, in terms of cookware and supplies. But I would rather have 6 pyrex dishes than have to buy disposable cookware when I make up some meals to have in the freezer. Or 12 pie plates because I pre make all our holiday pies in the late Oct and early Nov. Its not hoarding for me because I actively use these items, and they help me save money for my family.

    I have a large pantry, but make sure to eat through it at least once a year and reorganize every few months so nothing gets lost or too old. It works to our advantage because I can use stocked items to make very cheap meals, and in the winter when we get snowed in for days at a time, I just head to the freezer and pantry for meals. I can even take meals to the neighbors if they need.

  12. Cat says:

    Rebecca: Thank you for writing. Sometimes I feel like a paranoid Patty!! for wanting to stock up but you seem like a very organized wife and mother. I am determined to do my best to live this new way of life prepared and to not waste what I buy in the meantime. This will be a challenge to do it right and you have already shared great advice. Thank you

  13. Victoria says:

    “It’s statistically proven: families that eat dinner together have lower incidence rates of teenage pregancy and juvenile delinquency.”

    Come on, Trent.. you can do better than this.

    I think a great way to curb the urge to eat out is actually calculate the cost of cooking at baking at home. Once you find out the tasty, healthy muffins you make at home are only a few pennies each, the $2 sugar-laden monster muffins at the local coffee shop are a lot less appealing. My boyfriend was a member of the “eating out isn’t that much more expensive” club until I started adding up and pointing out how much these things actually cost to make. Calculating the cost of a cup of sugar, flour etc at least gives you a ballpark figure for baked goods.

  14. Briana @ GBR says:

    This will definitely be a book I’ll use to start my advanced frugal efforts.

  15. SLCCOM says:

    Teflon is a completely inert substance. If eaten, it will simply pass through the digestive system and cause absolutely no problems.

  16. Marle says:

    Mealplanning at my house is somewhat of a problem. I’m a vegan (not really strict, but not eating mac and cheese, either) and my husband hates vegetables. Seriously hates them, won’t even eat spaghetti. We have a roommate, but she prefers more traditional food, which tends to have both meat and vegetables mixed together and so neither my husband and I will eat it. Right now, the three of us buy separate groceries, cook at separate times (because 2-3 people in our kitchen cooking 2-3 different meals doesn’t work), and eat at separate times because we can’t figure out how to make a meal for all of us. Cooking for one kinda sucks, so we’ve mostly been eating whatever crap is easiest to cook lately. Does anyone have any suggestions for how to make a meal plan to merge widely different tastes? Obviously he could cook meat, I could cook vegetables, and roommate could eat a little of both, but that’s harder than it sounds because my husband and I would still have to have complete meals and they would have to be complimentry and not that weird (no tofu, etc) for the roommate. Are their any cookbooks or websites that help with problems like this?

  17. Lori says:

    I am a couponer. If I can buy the namebrand item for less than the store brand – I do. The majority of the coupons I use are for toothpaste, deodorant, laundry soap, dishwasher soap, papertowels, TP, etc. Those are the items I get for very little, which allows me to buy the fresh fruits and veggies for my family. There is always a coupon for pasta that makes it free or less than 50 cents for a box, that is less than generic. We have a family of 4 and have gotten our food and all other items (not clothes) down to $400 per month. We eat well, pack lunches for work, watch portion sizes, use leftovers, etc. We still have 1 kid in diapers and that $ includes diapers (he will be done in 6 mths or less!). We have a pantry that I can stockpile and purchased a freezer in February. We garden a little bit – I want to expand this. We don’t eat out much at all. Going through the pantry and freezer is key so that items are used properly. We also donate to the local food pantry. It can be time consuming, but since I only work part-time, I figure my other part-time job is to save the family $.

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