Grocery Shopping & Meal Planning Strategies, Rule 1: Know Your Strengths

budgeting without coupons

Over the years, I’ve tried several different grocery-shopping and meal-planning strategies, with varying levels of success.

During my extremely cash-strapped years of early motherhood, I’d bounce from store to store, searching for deals, relying on double coupon days and stocking up on sale items to get us through lean times. I remember well a time when my weekly grocery budget for myself (pregnant), my husband, and my then-toddler son was exactly $47.50 (though I don’t remember how I came to that number, I suppose it was whatever was left over each month after paying the rent and utilities, divided by four!)

In those tough, tight years, I experimented with once-a-month-cooking, once-a-month-shopping, semi-extreme couponing, and many different combinations of beans and rice. And while some of these ideas worked out (yay for beans and rice!), others didn’t stand the test of time.

I think what I’ve learned is that in order for any grocery shopping or meal-planning strategy to work, it has to fit your particular personality and circumstances. For example, as a young at-home mom trying to feed a small family on an extremely limited budget, I had more way more time than money: not only was clipping coupons and driving from store to store necessary to stay within my budget, but I had the hours available to do it.

But now that I have a career, five kids and more money to spend, I find that I value my time a little differently than I did back then. If a register coupon seems like it’ll be useful to me, sure, I’ll stash it in my purse for the next visit. But I don’t go looking for circulars anymore. Likewise, while I shop at several different stores over the course of a month, I almost never drive around to multiple stores in one day and am often willing to pay a little more for a product I need that’s right in front of me than to drive across town to get it cheaper.

Neither approach is right or wrong; it’s just based on the reality I’m in at the moment.

Knowing yourself and what matters right now is valuable when it comes to cooking, too. For example, while I think once-a-month cooking is a fabulous idea in concept, for a habit-driven person like me, it’s a lot more effective to create a routine centered around a small amount of cooking every day than to try to do it marathon-style all in one weekend. (The same principle explains why I try to do a load of laundry every day, rather than letting it pile up and tackling it on the weekend; and why I would rather spend a few minutes packing lunches each day than 20 minutes packing a week’s worth on Sunday.)

It’s easy to let those blog posts demonstrating dirt-cheap coupon-fueled shopping hauls or pretty Pinterest pics featuring stacks of beautifully-labeled freezer meals get you down or make you feel inferior.

If that kind of shopping or cooking works with your current time constraints and budget concerns – and if it’s a good match for your time-management style – then by all means, go for it!

But if not, I think it’s a lot more valuable to focus on your strengths and tendencies and find ways to use them to stay in your budget and manage your dinner-prep time.

If you aren’t a planner, you might miss some opportunities to save money. But you can capitalize on a spontaneous nature by picking up that almost-too-ripe produce at a discount, knowing you can pinch-hit and figure out a way to use it tonight.

If you don’t have the patience to hit multiple stores in one afternoon, maybe try shopping at your “go-to” store three times a month and supplementing with the discount chain once a month (more on this strategy in a future post.)

If you find that bulk shopping leads to food waste, try implementing a “no-shopping” week where you plan only meals based on what you’ve got in the fridge, freezer or pantry.

And if you find that shopping every couple of weeks leads to a fridge so stuffed you forget what’s in it, see if smaller, more frequent shopping trips keep you on track – yes, even if they go against “conventional” frugality wisdom.

Don’t let the way you think you “should” be get in the way of making the most of who you really are.

Even time-strapped, spontaneous, out-of-sight-out-of-mind, grocery-shopping haters can save money at the supermarket and come up with a workable meal-planning strategy. But it all starts with understanding yourself.

Here are some questions to consider while you figure out what kind of strategy works best for you:

  • Are you the type of person who thrives on making a ‘big event’ of something? Or are you more likely to stick with a plan if you incorporate it into your life little by little, day by day?
  • Do you get a rush out of checklists, shopping circulars, and long shopping trips? Or do you start to shut down after about the thirty-minute mark, forgetting half the things on your list while filling in all the empty spaces in the cart with wine and chocolate?
  • Which of these statements is more true for you right now? When it comes to grocery shopping, “I have more time than money” or “I have more money than time”?
  • Do you have a dedicated shopping day? Do you tend to work grocery shopping in around other things, like driving kids to practice? Or are you most likely to put it off until the last minute, only running to the store in an emergency?
  • Do you enjoy grocery shopping? Or is it a huge chore?
  • When you get home after a trip to the store, do you immediately put everything away, possibly even prepping veggies and fruits and cleaning out the fridge at the same time? Or do you toss the perishables in the fridge and freezer and then flop on the sofa for a rest because you feel spent?

Remember, there are no “right or wrong” answers; no “good or bad”. It’s all about understanding yourself and giving up on some mythical idea of the “naturally” frugal or organized home cook. If you understand your strengths, tendencies, and financial and time needs, you can learn how to work with reality…instead of against it!

So, (if you need a permission slip),

I hereby excuse you from: coupon-clipping, freezer-stocking, bulk-shopping, or circular-studying.

If those things don’t excite you or just don’t work with your current circumstances, I promise you don’t need them in order to save money and/or get real food on the table. Over the next few weeks I’m going to be writing a lot about simplifying the whole meal-planning and grocery-shopping experience so it works for YOU – especially if you, like me, have struggled with making some of the typical budgeting and meal-planning advice work in your real life.

I can’t wait to delve into this topic – I have a feeling there are a lot of “us” out there!

PS: Speaking of saving money and meal planning, make sure to tune in this Wednesday for my podcast with Melissa d’Arabian, host of the Food Network’s “10 Dollar Dinners” and author of a brand-new book by the same name! I loved talking with Melissa because her advice is so sensible and realistic – and her book is chock-full of surprising tips and tidbits that can help you make the most of shopping and cooking…however YOU like to do it. I’ll also be sharing Melissa’s French Onion soup recipe tomorrow, so be sure to check back! 

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  1. Jennifer Lawler
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