Success story: Kelly Marriott
When eggs hit $2 a dozen, Kelly Marriott decided she had to do something about her rapidly rising, $700-a-month grocery bill.
The Woodstock, Ga.-based freelance business writer and public relations consultant had less work and wasn't being paid as quickly by her clients.
Food prices were soaring, and she had four children to feed at home as well as a 24-year-old who likes to drop in for dinner and a 21-year-old in college.
"I knew I had to make some changes quickly," says Kelly, 49. "I had a budget in the past but wasn't really sticking to it as much as I could."
For one thing, Kelly hadn't been very organized when it came to shopping and meal preparation. She often stopped at the store several times a week for items she'd forgotten during her last shopping trip or to grab an already-prepared rotisserie chicken or meatloaf for that evening's dinner.
In addition, her shopping cart always featured lots of processed foods and convenience meals, like macaroni and cheese, frozen lasagna and taco kits, as well as frozen pizzas, junk and snack foods packaged in grab-and-go sizes for school lunches.
"I knew there were areas we could cut back," she says.
But Kelly didn't set a budget at first. Instead, she decided to reduce extras and cook from scratch.
"I had to learn to plan meals in advance, coordinate them with grocery ads and keep better track of what we already had in the pantry or freezer," she says.
She looked for sales, especially on meat. If ground turkey or beef could be had cheaply, she planned for spaghetti, taco or chili-type recipes. A deal on pork roast became barbecue, casseroles or fajitas.
Those first shopping trips took longer, because Kelly was so conscious about the choices she was making. But she persevered after seeing savings right away.
"I was shocked at how much we actually spent on things we either didn't really need or could make from scratch," Kelly adds.
She also realized that her family was drinking lots of unnecessary beverages, like soda, juice and bottled water. Juice became an on-sale-only purchase, and the family switched to a PUR water filter pitcher.
"I had to reduce my daily intake of Diet Coke," Kelly says.
Milk, of course, couldn't be sacrificed. But she discovered that the Aldi near her home sold it for $2.49 a gallon -- much cheaper than the grocery store.
While Kelly tries to substitute canned and frozen fruits and vegetables for fresh, she does buy apples, bananas and carrots when her family needs them, regardless of whether they're on sale. She always looks for deals on onions, potatoes and tomatoes.
"My new thing this summer is to try to grow my own," she adds. "I've never been into growing my own, but I am trying tomatoes, zucchini and green peppers. I'm hoping to grow enough to slash even more on groceries."
Kelly also took note about how much cleaning products were raising her grocery bill. Before spending another $3 to $4 a bottle for separate kitchen, glass and toilet bowl cleaners and furniture polish, she did a little research and found that she could clean just about any surface in her house with vinegar, baking soda and lemon.
As Kelly became more organized, she decided to start shopping -- and cooking -- once a month. She looks for deals on frozen vegetables for casseroles and soups, and stocks up on bread, buns and bagels, which she freezes for use throughout the next four weeks.
"Fewer trips to the store mean more time at home," she says. "It really doesn't take me any longer to buy for a month than it did for a week."
Now, Kelly spends one Sunday a month in the kitchen, which she admits can be tedious at first.
"It's really kind of fun once you get started and make it a habit," she says. "When you see how easy meals are, you know it's worth it."
She always prepares and freezes a huge batch of meat sauce, as well as lasagna, baked ziti and ravioli. Whole chickens are cooked, cut up and frozen. Pork chops and chicken cutlets are breaded, ready to be covered with sauce and baked. Kelly has found that most soups, stews and casseroles are very freeze-thaw friendly.
Several batches of individually portioned meals help the family when there's a schedule mishap and one person needs to eat separately from the rest.
Kelly saves money on freezing supplies -- plastic bags, aluminum foil and wax paper -- by buying them at the dollar store. She usually finds a name brand on the shelf and picks up her garbage bags there as well.
It took three months for Kelly to truly see the difference her shopping changes have made in her grocery bill. She is currently spending $400 a month on groceries and is determined to reduce her bill to $350.
"We are eating just as well and probably healthier," she says.
And for the most part, the kids have been good sports. The younger ones -- two 5-year-olds, recently adopted from China -- miss Pop-Tarts. The older ones complained about the lack of junk food until Kelly explained how their new way of eating was helping the budget.
"They haven't figured out yet that I have been using ground turkey instead of ground beef in many recipes, and they might resist that," she says. "Some things are better left unsaid."
Here are Kelly's tips for grocery shopping more efficiently and economically:
- Assess past receipts. Total everything you could've done without, such as impulse purchases, junk food or items you had two of at home but weren't sure so went ahead and bought another. Then, see if there are cheaper alternatives for the items you actually needed.
- Plan your meals, grocery lists and trips to the store. "It becomes a habit," Kelly says. "Eventually, you are looking for even more ways to save."
- Shop with cash to eliminate temptation. With her credit cards and checkbook at home, Kelly has no choice but to follow her list and spend wisely.
- Find your "frugal threshold." Depriving yourself too much will backfire and result in "frugal burnout" and splurging. Come up with a plan you can tweak as you adjust to cutbacks. Allow for occasional splurges.
- Don't give up everything you love. Although the Marriott family now eats more nutritiously, they still have ice cream, occasional junk food and kid-targeted cereal. Kelly keeps frozen pizzas on hand for when her teens' friends visit.
- Beware of warehouse clubs. Most items aren't any cheaper than when they're on sale at the grocery store and bigger boxes don't last any longer than smaller ones. "Because we had them, everyone thought we needed to eat them," she says.