Steve and Annette Economides have five kids and a monthly food bill that totals a mere $350. How do they do it? Among other things, through lots and lots of planning, strategic buying in bulk, utilization of their freezer, pantry, and Ziploc bags, and the occasional purchase of something called a chub.
The Economides, known as America’s Cheapest Family, have a new book out called Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half. They answer my questions on smart grocery shopping techniques and economical cooking below.
A lot of people economize by making their own sandwiches to bring to work, typically bought with sliced meat and cheese from a grocery store deli. But you guys never ever buy items at the deli, right? Are there other examples of things that many consumers do at the supermarket that you’d never do?
Steve & Anne Economides: We do pretty much everything everybody else does, we just do it differently. Bringing lunch to work is a great way to save a boodle. If you do some simple math, with an inexpensive lunch costing $10 X 5 days per week = $50 per week X 50 weeks=$2500 per year. There’s a lot of money available to save by taking your lunch to work. But . . . we don’t recommend that you go “cold turkey.” Start with bringing you lunch two or three days and week. Once you see how much cash and time you’re saving, you’ll never turn back.
Lunch meat sandwiches are a good option for lunch. And if you want to save about 50 percent on your lunch meat, buy it in chubs (it’s a gross name, but a great way to save — basically it’s a large chunk of meat) from the meat section of your grocery store and have the butcher or deli slice it for you. Or you could bring re-heatable meals (a.k.a. leftovers—these get a bad rap, but it’s basically the same thing as a TV Dinner). Steve did this for years and people would constantly ask him for Annette’s recipes. Our daughter Becky does this now where she works and her co-workers often make special trips to the lunch room to gaze at her meal when they get a whiff of it coming out of the microwave.
One big thing we don’t do at the supermarket is pay retail price for most of the groceries we buy. We shop smart, know our prices and stock up on most items we eat when they are on sale. We also don’t buy all of our food at the grocery store. We’ve discovered other sources that sell items we use for much less. We buy our good quality, whole grain bread at a dollar store. And we buy spices, shredded cheese and ingredients for Annette’s homemade pasta sauce from a mini-warehouse near our home (no membership fee, but great prices).
We don’t buy bottled water—that’s a real purse drainer. We researched and installed an excellent dual filtration system in our home and enjoy delicious water in our own portable bottles. Just be sure to regularly wash your reusable water bottles to avoid bacteria build-up. What good is saving money if it gets you sick!
It’s not really a matter of what we don’t do at the grocery store, it’s more discovering better sources for specific items and shopping there to get the best quality for the lowest price.
Likewise, what are a few of the things you do or don’t do in your kitchen that are the complete opposite of what the average family does?
SAE: We never play baseball in the kitchen—imagine what would happen if a baseball fell into Annette’s pasta sauce . . . it would take hours to get tender, and still wouldn’t taste as good as Annette’s homemade meatballs. But we do cook from scratch and we do that a lot. Cooking from scratch is a huge money saver. It may seem overwhelming to someone who hasn’t grown up with this concept, but it is easy to learn and can feed your family for pennies . . . and keep you out of the drive thru lane.
We wash out our plastic zippered bags and dry them on a vertical rack to be reused several times, greatly reducing the per use cost. We’ve got a gallon of bleach under our kitchen sink. We pour a “glug” into our dish water to sanitize all of our pots, pans, cutting boards and other utensils. Never gotten sick in our kitchen.
We don’t have a lot of electric gadgets on the counters. We use a manual can opener, only pull out the food processor on once-a-month cooking day. We have a citrus juicer that we use a lot during the winter (we have a citrus orchard on our property), and we pull out our blender several times each month to mix up smoothies using over-ripe bananas and other fruit we have on hand.
Buying most of our meal ingredients on sale is another great way we stretch our savings. We’re always on the lookout for discounted meat—especially bulk meat that we can slice ourselves and repackage in smaller units. We just scored some top sirloin in 14 pound butcher cuts for $1.50 per pound. We bought 28 pounds of it and cut it for steaks and roasts. Man is it tender—and it’s even sweeter because of the deal we got.
We slice our own lunch meat on a meat slicer that a neighbor gave us. It allows us to buy chubs of meat for about 50 percent of the deli price and slice and repackage it ourselves. We freeze it in smaller packages (about a week’s worth of lunch meat) and defrost when we need it.
We don’t have a TV in our kitchen. As a matter of fact, we only have one TV and don’t spend a lot of time watching it. We’d rather live life than watch other people living it. We do play a lot of music in our kitchen. Annette loves to sing and at any give time you’ll hear anything from Vivaldi’s “Gloria” to Veggie Tales or a wide assortment of Christmas music (Annette’s favorite time of the year).
What are the 3 or 4 easiest, most painless ways to save on groceries — the ones that everyone can and should do, and that you scratch your heads in puzzlement when you see people not doing them?
1. Stock up when things are on sale. Knowing when a sale price is a real deal is key to success here. We try to think like Warren Buffet would. He researches a business segment and when he finds a good business that is under-valued, he buys it. He knows it’s a real deal because he’s done his research. The same thing can easily be done with groceries, but most people just go to the store several times each week, buying full priced items—spending too much money and time feeding their families. We started tracking prices using a sheet of loose-leaf paper and a notebook. Eventually we had enough products and prices recorded that we knew when a sale price was a super deal. If you want to get a copy of our free Price Tracker sheet visit this link: http://americascheapestfamily.com/tips/type/shopping/price-tracker-sheet (over 13,000 people have downloaded it).
When we find a deal on meat, or canned goods or other items that we know will store well in our freezer or pantry, we don’t just buy one or two, we buy several months’ worth of the item. Then we slowly deplete our stockpile and watch for another sale. Most of the food we’re eating this week was purchased several months earlier on sale.
2. Write up a list and use it. It amazes us when we find a napkin or scrap of paper left in a shopping cart from a previous shopper. These types of shopping list are a dream for grocers—but a nightmare for your budget. The grocer will intentionally put desirable items in your path (on end-caps, at eye level or marked with special shelf tags), knowing that a shopper without a real plan is going to pick up 60 percent more items on impulse than they intended. We use a check-off type shopping list available for free here: http://americascheapestfamily.com/tips/type/shopping/free-shopping-list . This list can be modified to any shoppers particular tastes. The whole point is that going to the store with a list is like having a battle plan—you’ll get in, get what you need and get out without emptying your wallet or spending your whole afternoon doing it.
3. Limit your trips to the store. The average shopper is going to the store between two and four times each week (we have a survey on our website where you can compare your habits to hundreds of other shoppers—http://americascheapestfamily.com/polls/grocery-store ). One visitor to our website said that by simply cutting her trips to the store to one time per week, she was able to cut her grocery bill in half from $800 per month to $400, effectively saving almost $5000 per year. The less often you shop, the less you’ll spend.
Are there any money-saving strategies out there that you don’t bother with, either because they require too much time or energy, or they don’t save all that much to justify the effort? If so, what are they, and why don’t you bother?
SAE: We don’t believe in miserly living. Every family is going to have different priorities. What you are willing to live with may be different for us. Just don’t spend more than you earn each month and you’ll be fine. Years ago we didn’t recycle, have a garden or have our own compost pile—but of course now we do. The frugal life is a learning experience. Over time you’ll find strategies and disciplines that work for your family, and others that don’t. By focusing on working efficiently and finding creative ways to live below your means you’ll always be adding frugal concepts to your life and fine-tuning the ones you already have. We don’t recycle dryer lint or make our own laundry detergent. That’s not to say that someone out there finds those things to be fulfilling and saves a lot of money doing them. It’s just not for us . . . right now. One thing we definitely don’t do is reuse toilet paper.
I know one key piece of advice for saving is to get better at planning. But what about if you’re just not good at planning? Any tips for good, quick meals that can be thrown together with minimal planning, with ingredients most people probably have at home already?
SAE: Planning is a skill and habit that takes time to develop. Any thing that you do repetitively you’ll eventually streamline and improve. Think about a toddler learning to walk. Not a very efficient exercise, but over time they become very proficient at it, as a mater of fact, when they learn to run, it’s a challenge to catch them! Planning is the same way. Start with a little bit of planning, like putting together a week’s worth of dinner meals and grow your skill from there.
The best thing you can do to help you plan better is to make a list of every meal you know how to cook. That way building a menu is a simple matter of selecting meals off of a list. If your pantry and refrigerator are empty, then planning is going to be more difficult. But having a pantry stocked with some pretty basic items means that a simple dinner menu could look something like this:
Monday: Tacos—lettuce, tomato, cheese, meat, and taco shells or flour tortillas
Tuesday: Mac & cheese, carrots—cooked or raw
Wednesday: Hot dogs, beans, pickles
Thursday: BBQ chicken, corn on the cob, applesauce
Friday: Spaghetti & meatballs, green salad
Saturday: Hamburgers, baked potatoes, green beans
Sunday: Vegetable soup with muffins
Care to share your favorite secret ingredients or spices — ones that don’t cost much, but that really make the meal something special?
SAE: We don’t really have any “secret” ingredients, but we do have favorites. We love to marinate a steak in a red wine and teriyaki sauce with a little bit of powdered ginger added to it. We let it soak for several hours, and then cook it on the grill. It is simply mouth-watering.
Being Greek (Steve) and Italian (Annette) we do have a few favorite ingredients that are common to our heritages: Olive oil, garlic and oregano. But scrumptious meals are less about special ingredients and more about fine tuning the recipes your family likes. For our family, Annette’s home cooking is just delicious (and economical).
Finally, what kinds of things has your family been able to afford to do now that you’ve saved so much on food over the years?
SAE: We have used a written, modifiable budget since day-one of our marriage. It allows us to save in advance for expenses such as: car insurance every six months, gifts for the holidays, car maintenance, school tuition, pets, etc. We have virtually everything anyone else in America would want, except for a mountain of debt. We have paid cash for all of our cars, taken debt-free vacations, paid for our kids’ college without loans, retired our first mortgage in nine years and spend only $350 each month on groceries for our family.