How to Save on Your Weekly Grocery Bill

I’m reading this amazing book right now by Stephanie Coontz called Marriage, A History. It chronicles how marriage changed from early civilizations up through modern times and I am amazed at how the role of men and women and community has altered over the years to give us what we have now.

I bring up this book not to tell you about the history of marriage, although it is fascinating, but to tell you about the practices of late 19th century housewives in their attempts to save money. At that point the idea of marriage being an independent unit sustained from within and not by a community effort was only about 150 years old. The roles were shifting so men were the primary breadwinners, women were staying home to tend to the household and the ultimate view of wealth was if your wife could stay home all day an not have to “work” outside of the household.

Now anyone who has taken on this role, even temporarily, will tell you it is work. Running a household entirely by yourself is nothing to sneeze at, but as we felt the repercussions of the Enlightenment, what was viewed as a mark of success was how your life and social interactions were heightened by a higher order. Not necessarily God, though that was in there too, but by activities like discussions about politics, attending public debates, and having an impact on your community. Obviously, women at home could not participate in these activities, usually not because they weren’t allowed but because they just couldn’t afford to leave the kids in the care of someone else or had other duties to attend to to keep the household running.

I give you this intro because one paragraph caught my attention unlike any other so far. It spoke of the “slim margin that made the difference between survival and destitution for so many people” because of the small single income they lived on and how “a woman of that day might visit for different shops and buy a pound of apples or vegetables at each, rather than boy four pounds from one merchant.” This is mostly because a merchant would measure out slightly more than a pound for one transaction so the woman might walk away with an extra potato, onion or apple.

Andy and I now have an elaborate weekly shopping ritual wherein we plan our meals for the week via some text messaging, emailing or, if we’re lucky, face-to-face interaction. We have a list on Dropbox that we share and it has four grocery stores listed. We shop at a produce stand, Trader Joe’s, a convention grocery store like Albertson’s or QFC and PCC. And it all depends on what we need and what’s on sale where.

“But, Verhanika, don’t you spend more in gas that you save on your purchases?”

Um, no. And if you are, then you’re doing this wrong. All of our grocery stores are within a 5 mile radius of our house and we visit them in an order that saves gas. In the end I burn about a half a gallon of gas in the drive, the equivalent of about $2. Last week, we saved over $50 by buying our produce at the stand, our bulk foods (we needed oats and nuts) at PCC and chicken that was on sale at Albertson’s.

We figure out what is on sale by looking through those obnoxious ads that come in the mail and subscribe to the weekly savings emails our grocery stores offer online. It’s how we’ve gotten to eat beautiful, wild-caught salmon for weeks because we bought it for $3.99 a pound and froze the extra.

When we initially got together, I was doing all the grocery shopping since I was an underemployed artist and shopped exclusively at Safeway. I was spending about $150 a week on our groceries and mentioned it to my mom about how expensive chicken was that day and she said, “Don’t you have Albertson’s up there? It’s $1.99 a pound right now.” Why, in fact I do, Mama. So I started paying attention to our weekly circulars and brought our bill down to $100 a week.

If you live on that amount now, you are a rock star, but the average for the nation is closer to my $150 mostly because of rising food costs in the time of sky-high oil prices. Most of what you pay for in your food is the cost of transportation.

So, when doing your shopping, take on the mind-set of the 1860s housewife and your favorite financial planner and split it up so you’re not spending an arm and a leg in these times of rising food prices. Rather, just a digit or two.

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