I gave a grocery class for the public at Michigan Works! in February. It was so well-received that I was invited back as a meeting speaker. Because I will also be speaking to a low-income group next week, I wrote my presentation with food stamp budgets in mind.
I normally post my script after a presentation so that participants can review the material later, and those who missed it can catch up. The embedded links send you to background material if you want information on a specific topic.
My name is Paula Wethington.
I’m one of the reporters at The Monroe Evening News. My best-known project is the frugal living, personal finance blog called Monroe on a Budget.
Monroe on a Budget started five years ago as an online project. While the web site is updated frequently throughout the week, Monroe on a Budget is now a newspaper column that appears every Monday in The Monroe Evening News. I also have feature columns frequently in Monroe Parent magazine.
Any topic that helps southeast Michigan families save money is fair game for discussion at Monroe on a Budget. The archives include headlines and tips on gas prices, college scholarships and birthday parties.
But the topic I’ve become known for is how to cut the grocery bill.
For my program today, and another one I’m giving next week, I’m spinning my presentation specifically to those who are on very tight budgets. Every store I mention today accepts food stamps. My goal is that with these tips, you will have a better idea of how to get more for your money and what to expect when grocery shopping.
One of the discussions about the grocery bill these days involves how far you can push the savings. I have quite a collection of newspaper and magazine articles on that topic.
The most amazing one is from the Detroit Free Press and it shows a coupon expert who saved 91 percent during a trip to Meijer in Allen Park.
The problem is: one shopping trip is not reflective of a monthly grocery budget.
I can’t imagine the circumstances that could get a family’s grocery bill to $100 a month, and that’s what that 91 percent would hint at.
What is a reasonable grocery budget? The numbers I use are based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture Cost of Food at Home study. I have copies of the chart that you can look over and review.
To create this chart, the USDA researches what Americans eat, and reviews the food choices in comparison to nutritional guidelines. The figures are updated every month to reflect current food prices
The goal I teach with the grocery bill is to hit the USDA “thrifty” range for your family size and demographic. That price point for a family of two adults and two small children is currently $543 a month. Keep in mind this is for all food eaten, including restaurant food. But it does not include paper products or cleaning supplies.
If you can do better than that thrifty, great. There was a time when our grocery bills were 80 percent of thrifty. This past winter, the grocery bills came in at “thrifty.” I’m OK with that for now.
Amazingly enough, one Monroe mom told me after I taught a grocery class that her family’s grocery bills were TWICE thrifty!
How do you get that grocery bill down?
Couponing will help, especially with personal care items, paper products and cleaning supplies that are not food stamp friendly in the first place.
Couponing is not just for those who can afford a newspaper subscription or who are willing to buy stacks of Sunday newspapers every week.
You can ask friends or family for their leftover coupons. One of my friends used her couponing savvy to stretch her allocation when her family ended up on food stamps for a time. Another friend who was on WIC used coupons to help with the cost of groceries that WIC doesn’t pay for. Both of them happily accepted my hand-me-down coupons many times!
But another tactic we have in Monroe County are the community coupon swap boxes. There’s one here at Michigan Works! Coupon boxes also can be found at Bedford, Dorsch, Erie, Ida, Navarre, Rasey, Summerfield-Petersburg, Frenchtown-Dixie and Milan Public libraries.
When you use the coupon swap boxes, you take home any coupons your family can use. You pay the box back by contributing coupons you can’t use that come your way.
After you start a coupon collection, how do you organize the coupons? I use the coupon box method. This index card box and the cards cost me all of $2. I’ve seen several variations on this system either sold as coupon caddies or office products that can be repurposed as one, and they all cost less than $10.
The other method that is popular today is a binder. I have seen people shop with binders, and I have a sample binder here to show you. I will tell you that it costs about $15 to $30 in office supplies to set your system up that way, and that’s a bit of an upfront expense if your intention is to save money.
But before you start couponing, look up the coupon policies at the stores you shop at. Some coupon policies are listed in the print ads. In other cases, you need to look them up on the store’s web site or ask for a copy at a customer service desk. Wal-Mart has signs at its checkout lanes about its coupon policy details.
I’ve collected as many coupon policies as I can find for the Monroe-area stores, and you’ll find them in one of my binders at the display table.
Basically, this is what is happening: Several stores in Monroe County double coupons up to 50 cents. Kmart in Monroe is doubling coupons to $1, but that promotion is very annoying because it requires a minimum $25 purchase and will only double five coupons.
The next step is to learn to watch the sales. You don’t have to spend hours on the Internet every week to figure this out. Online resources may not do much good in the first place because supermarket specials vary from one city to the next. I do report on grocery sales for the Monroe area, but my roundups don’t help those who shop in Toledo or Ann Arbor.
The best way to use the web is go to the store’s web site. Most stores post their print ads on line, and you will be asked to enter a zip code if the deals vary from region to the next.
Other effective methods to find the sales are old school ones. Look for the ads that come in the mail or in the newspaper to your house.
Another alternative is grab a sales flier from the rack as you walk into the store, or look for it on the bulletin board as you arrive. Take a few minutes to look over those promotions before you start shopping, and scan the shelf tags for sales that weren’t advertised.
If you have a good idea of what coupons are in your coupon box or binder, you’ll quickly notice when a sale matches up to a coupon you have.
Now, how do you know whether a sale is really a sale price? One way is to inspect the store fliers for the competition.
Did you know that a local drugstore in town regularly advertises milk at $2.79 a gallon as a “sale price” when other stores often sell milk for $2.49 a gallon? I know that from reviewing the grocery and drugstore fliers. Where do you think I buy my milk, and where I don’t? Seriously, now.
Another trick that is helpful if your shopping trips are limited to one or two stores is called a price book. Get a notebook or a stack of index cards to do this tracking, or you can set up a chart in your mobile phone. Start by listing 20 or 25 grocery and drugstore products your family uses frequently. Whenever you are shopping, make a note of the date and the price you see for those items.
At most stores, you will notice that there are weeks when the prices are high, and weeks when the prices are low. That’s how savvy shoppers know when it’s time to stock up on a favorite product or change a menu plan. They’ve been watching the retail prices through the price book method.
Now, let’s talk about tactics that work at some of the area stores that take food stamps.
As you can see, you need to match the money-saving tactics you are willing to use to the stores where they work best. You might find it helpful to study one store at a time and learn its promotions very well before you move on to the next store. But the more choices you knew about, the better mix of groceries you will get for your money. (I have a grocery database that lists these details.)
I have a lot of show and tell items about grocery shopping, and you are welcome to look them over after the program. If you’d like to read through my archives and links, my web site is at monroeonabudget.com. My Facebook page is facebook.com/monroeonabudget. I also have Pinterest, Twitter and YouTube accounts as Monroe on a Budget.
But, do you have any questions in the meantime?
If you’d like to attend one of my programs, I expect to have one this summer in the Dundee area that will be open to the public. I’ll announce the details as soon as they are worked out.
And if you’d like to schedule me as a speaker for an event or meeting in Monroe County or Downriver, contact me at email@example.com or (734) 240-5745.