Cutting grocery bills

More than a month ago, one of Durango’s coupon-clipping gurus, a young mother of two preschool-aged children, shared what she knew, balancing a laptop on one knee and a stack of inserts on the other.

She told the small group gathered at her condo what she had paid for several Sunday issues of the Denver Post before deducting that cost from her small budget. She knew how much time she had spent categorizing and maximizing the number of points she could accumulate if she doubled her coupon savings for additional rewards. Off the top of her head she rattled off what we should be paying for milk and where we should buy it.

By the end of the threehour session, when it was time to cut into the homemade apple crisp on her kitchen counter, we knew that if we paid more than $1.99 for a half gallon of milk or if we dropped a single cent on such items as toothpaste, deodorant or shampoo, we just didn’t get it.

This coupon maven dabbled in coupons as another artist might dabble in oil, blending, contrasting, then carefully brushing in the details for a portrait of savings. I was awestruck. She managed to remove all my excuses for not being an “awake” consumer.

Then I picked up the Jan. 15 issue of Bottom Line Personal. It’s just one of the newsletters of BottomLinePublications.com. This one is jam-packed with information from investment, fitness, financial planning, food, real estate and travel experts. It makes for useful reading when you’re stuck in traffic or a waiting room.

The headline that caught my eye was “How America’s Cheapest Family Eats Great Food on $12 a Day.” It is the story of Steve and Annette Economides, best-selling authors of Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half with America’s Cheapest Family. The Economides’ bottom line? Five adults – including three of their athletic children from ages 17 to 26 – live under one roof and the family spends less than $350 a month on groceries. That’s about $2.30 a day.

They do not coupon and they claim they do not sacrifice their favorite foods. But they do plan.

Here’s my Durango spin on what these folks have in common and how we can apply some of the same tricks to cut escalating grocery bills:

1.Like anything else, shopping, cooking and managing a kitchen takes a game plan. It starts with knowing what you have in your freezer and your pantry, not to mention your garden. Write it down. Pretend you are taking an inventory. Shop around what you already have.

2.Plan a week of menus, with recipes if necessary, and think “cook once, eat twice.” Maybe three times. For example, defrost a whole chicken, gather up a few root vegetables, note if you have bread on the verge of going stale and think “Thanksgiving.” You can stuff and roast a chicken rather reasonably. Where you go with the leftovers is up to you, but it’s not limited to soup and sandwiches.

3.Like our classroom of coupon clippers, check the grocery circulars. There will be a loss-leader or two, and when it’s on special is when you buy it. (Remember that “inventory list” you took?) Seasonal fruits and vegetables ought to catch your eye and shape your meal-planning because whatever is abundant typically is priced less, not to mention it has greater nutritional value.

4.Go to the store less. It’s simple, but it’s true. The less time you spend wandering the aisles, the less money you’ll spend. The idea here is to be awake with your game plan. If you are in the middle of preparing a meal, learn to substitute a dry seasoning for fresh. True, there are some dishes that can’t be compromised, but there are plenty that can. Your job is to know the difference.

5.If your car is heading to Denver or Albuquerque, make sure it returns with staples including the special condiments that add so much flavor to whatever you have that you don’t feel like you’re making a culinary sacrifice. One teaspoon of outstanding balsamic vinegar can go a long way. Ditto a terrific mustard.

6.Whether it’s Trader Joe’s or your favorite warehouse club, know the price you’ll pay and resist impulse spending because you want to fill every inch of the car’s trunk with “savings.” These are not the places to try a new granola, but if you bake, you can’t beat the price for a 25-pound sack of flour or all-purpose yeast in a jar.

7.Pasta sauces, most Mexican casseroles (stacked enchiladas?) or family favorites such as lasagna freeze well. Cook once, freeze portions tailored to what you’ll need, and you’ll save time and energy. On-the-edge-veggies can be tossed into a pot of simmering stock to create a great end-of-the-week soup. Know the rules for making soup, so you can break them.

8.Friends with a farmer or hunter? Is there better value than planning meals around hormone-free, grass-fed, locally produced food? Pull out a cookbook or go online and learn a thing or two about butchering. There’s a reason some of our most flavorful cuts of meat are not necessarily tenderloins.

9. Think small degrees of change that add up to regular savings. Invest in a great coffee pot and skip the coffee shop in the morning. Half the time you’d normally grab a can of soda or juice, fill your glass with water. Learn to drink water with all meals, saving wine or beer for once a week rather than nightly consumption.

10. Your bottom line should be to know yourself well enough to decide where you can cut and where you must spend. If you want to cut spending, there’s going to be some sacrificing. You decide how to do it, but have a roadmap of where you’re going and how you’ll get there.