***Warning: This is a loooong post, you might want to grab a cuppa***
We always try and stick to a budget. However, our three daughters grow at an alarming rate and they all seem to need clothing and shoes at the same time, that combined with a few unexpected bills and meagre savings account funds makes for a big budgeting wake up call.
Like most people we get a bit complacent and let the budget slide now and then. Out of necessity, I decided to take action and get us back on track with our budget. Some things are fixed costs that we have little influence over like rent, council tax, TV license, etc. But one of our main expenses that we do have control over is our food bill. To reign in our spending I added up the total amount we spend on food in a month. Not just our main weekly shops but all food, including takeaways, cafe lunches and coffees, school dinners, etc. I looked at our bank statements for the past month and totaled up exactly how much was spent on food. If you do the same you'll probably be as shocked as I was, and not in a good way! LOL
I've detailed some of the strategies our household uses to help reduce our spending on food/groceries without compromising nutrition, taste or quality.
Firstly, make a meal plan. This is so you know exactly what you'll need to make seven dinners and any lunches you need to make for the week. Don't forget to include some options for snacks too, not necessarily crisps or convenience foods, you're after cheap and healthy options for snacks. Once you know what meals you need to make you can then work out what you already have, what you can use up that's been lurking in cupboards, and then what you NEED to buy for the week.
Keep a Basic Essentials List on the outside of a kitchen cupboard or on the fridge door. Our list is a laminated sheet of A4 with the items and tick boxes next to each item so we can just tick the ones we need to buy and erase the ticks once the online weekly shop has been done. I like to have a reusable list as it saves money on paper. Start with seasonal fresh fruit and vegetables and then list everything the household needs to survive. Not what they would like if you had loads of spare cash, only what they need. Use this list when planning meals and doing your shopping. Make sure you include pet food/supplies, cleaning products, sanitary items and toiletries.
Update the Basic Essentials List and write things down, or put a tick next to them, as soon as you run out of something. Don't try and rely on your memory or put it off until later on. Normally I'm sleep deprived or just too busy dealing with the kids to remember that we need Weetabix 3 hours after breakfast so I need to write it down then and there. If you have a properly updated grocery list you'll hopefully cut out the "just one or two items" trip to the supermarket. If you use your car for those trips it wastes petrol, and even if you walk or cycle, you'll almost inevitably buy more than the one or two items that you needed. You'll probably spend at least 30 minutes in the supermarket and get sucked in to buying half a dozen unnecessary items, especially if you shop when you're hungry or have your husband and kids with you.
If you plan ahead, make a weekly menu of all meals (including snacks, as much as possible) and shop with a list, you should drastically reduce the number of shopping trips you make for a small number of items. However, you might still find yourself running out of a few items before your next weekly shop, in that case, figure out the reason. Are you not making a good thorough list, are you forgetting to buy items on your list, do you need to buy more of things that are used up before the end of the week?
Shop online if you can. Using websites like MySupermarket.com can help find the cheapest supermarket for your weekly shop. Online shopping can be much easier than dragging children around the supermarket, and I find the running total useful for keeping our grocery spending to a set amount. One of our local supermarkets offers free delivery if you spend over a certain amount and get your groceries delivered on certain days, be on the lookout for deals like this. Sometimes the delivery charge is cheaper than the cost of driving to the supermarket, both in terms of petrol and stress.
Making and taking leftovers for lunch is also a great way to save money. Plan to cook a bit extra for dinner so that you'll have leftovers for your lunch and/or for the kids' lunches. Pack it up straight after dinner and put it in the fridge so you don't have to worry about it in the morning. Be creative and make pasties from leftover stews and mince or take leftover pasta bake to work and heat it up in the microwave for a filling lunch that should also help cut down on the afternoon munchies.
Cooking in bulk, then freezing meals is also a great money saver. If you have meals in the freezer for those nights when you can't be bothered cooking from scratch you won't fall in to the potentially expensive convenience food and takeaway trap. Alternatively, you can cook a whole pot of bolognese (for example) and freeze it for multiple dinners. A great idea is to use one Sunday and cook a few dinners. Plan 2 or 3 freezable dinners and cook them all at once. Slow cookers are fab for doing this, put a big batch of simmered mince in a slow cooker on a Sunday morning and by early evening it's ready eat. You can then cool some and pack away in the freezer or make other meals from it. A huge pot of mince can become bolognese, chilli con carne or goulash depending on what other ingredients you add to it.
Use up everything fresh, if possible, before the next shop. If you have some leftover fresh ingredients (half an onion, a slightly wrinkly tomato, a few small quantities of different shaped dried pasta or some eggs, maybe a few other veges) combine them all for a quick meal so that they don't go to waste before your next grocery shop. The more you can stretch the food, the less you waste, and the less you'll spend.
It at all possible don't buy anything you can realistically make yourself, especially if you are a SAHM or have spare time on the weekends. Get your children involved too. Bread, pizza bases, pasta sauces, cereal bars, biscuits, muffins, smoothies, etc can all be made easily and cheaply at home. You also know what's in them so can vary the ingredients according to your tastes, dietary needs and what needs using up. It's a lot less faff than you think and if you do it often you'll be able to whip up a loaf of bread, batch of muffins or large pot of pasta sauce in no time.
Find a good local source of fresh produce and meat that is cheap and also good quality. Supermarkets may not always offer the best value. A good local greengrocer is a brilliant find. Ours gives me large bags of over-ripe bananas (which I freeze to use in baking and smoothies) free in exchange for the occasional banana cake.
Also, ethnic food shops often sell items like spices, noodles, rice, legumes, pulses and tofu much cheaper than the larger supermarkets. They can also give you recipe hints and tips to make your meals much more interesting with a few cheap ingredients.
If you eat fruit and vegetables that are in season they should be at their cheapest, freshest and tastiest. It can be hard to tell what's in season as supermarkets try to stock everything all year round. Do your research and find out what's in season when. Be very sure the source is unsprayed and safe if you forage for wild berries, wild garlic, elderflower for cordial, etc.
If possible grow some of your own fruit and vegetables. You can grow in pots if you have a tiny backyard like we do.
A bowl of soup before dinner, or a homemade wholemeal bread roll with dinner is an inexpensive way to take the edge off the hungry hordes appetite. Soup is an easy way to get more vegetables into a meal and a much cheaper option than serving second helpings of the main course.
Add extra vegetables to recipes when you can, or add a topping to casseroles and stews. An extra potato, carrot, some pumpkin or sweet potato in a casserole will give you at least one extra serving from the recipe and a bigger vegetable to meat ratio. If you make a cobbler topping or some dumplings and add them to a stew or casserole it will help bulk out the meal for little added cost.
Add cooked pulses or legumes (beans, chickpeas and lentils) to your meals to easily get more servings out of the one meal. They are really cheap, even if you buy the canned ones, and are also low fat, high in fibre, and a good source of protein. You can add a handful or two of rolled oats to a bolognese sauce before simmering to bulk it out. The oats take on the flavour and soften so you can't tell they're in there.
Choose good quality meat (even if it is more expensive) over poor quality, cheaper meat. This especially applies to sausages, the cheaper the sausage the more fillers and less meat there is in them. Check the labels so you know what you are buying. For example, 4 to 6 good quality sausages will flavour a whole risotto, casserole or pasta sauce far better than 8 - 10 cheap and poor quality sausages ever could. Make the meat you use go much further and try out some cheaper cuts of meat, even if they need slower cooking. You can put a breast of lamb or beef brisket on to slow roast whilst you do loads of other things around the house, the oven does most of the work for you.
Remember living on a budget doesn’t necessarily mean deprivation and misery. It’s about living as well as you can, using a few smart tips and tricks to make the best use of what you have, whilst living within your means.