I don’t identify with extreme coupon people. I’ve always thought of clipping coupons — or “couponing” — as something hoarders do, like on the TLC reality show “Extreme Couponing.”
Instead, I take deals as they come. My time, which I balance with two kids, a husband, and a full-time freelance writing career, is too precious to spend hours just to save $3 on paper towels.
But in January, I noticed our checking account balances ran low more frequently. Sure, snow days meant more trips to the arts and crafts stores for my two preschoolers, but I still wanted to take a closer look at our spending.
In my head, I felt like I was buying about $900 of groceries per month for our family of four. When I pored over the real numbers, I was surprised to learn that I was spending much more than that — $1,173 in January alone — on food, household goods and personal care items. I wondered why this was happening, considering our youngest son stopped using diapers in December, which eliminated $40 to $50 per month in expenses.
At this point, I wondered if there was a way to invest one hour or less per week searching for online deals or going through the paper circulars on my doorstep.
Could this lower my grocery spending from $38 per day to $30 per day (my ideal), without sacrificing too much of the “bougie” pleasures I love, like organic produce and cage-free eggs?
Week 1: Kicking Off a New Habit
The Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion estimates the cost of groceries per month for a family of four, eating within the “healthy” parameters of a USDA Food Plan, ranges from $568 for the thriftiest plan to $1,107 per month for the most liberal.
Because I live in an expensive part of the country, I’d have to watch my spending and clip coupons just to stay below the “high-end” threshold. But I didn’t know where to start.
Growing up, couponing meant my parents poring over the Sunday edition of the Washington Post with a set of scissors. Today, most deals are online and can be downloaded to smartphones.
So on April 3, the first grocery-shopping day of my “minimalist couponing” month, I jotted down the discounts I’d get at my main grocery store, Stop & Shop, and scanned the deals from my preferred one, Whole Foods.
By doing just a little bit of prep work, I saved nearly $8 that day! I committed to shopping at the less-expensive grocers as much as possible and reserve Whole Foods trips for a few specific items, like an exclusive brand of muffins that is made on a nut-free factory line for our son Logan, who is allergic to nuts.
Week 2: Getting the Hang of Things
I’d learned to plan our family meals a bit better around what was on sale. This effort saved more than $20 with digital deals and online coupons.
Meanwhile, I tried to save money in other little ways, such as by purchasing generic store brands of organic whole milk and laundry detergent. I figured the effort was worthwhile.
Week 3: When It Rains, It Pours
Everything seemed to be going well when we learned that our broken oven wouldn’t get fixed for another few months. That meant lots of great meals I’d planned to make at home (roasted veggies and chicken thighs) plus inexpensive treats I’d wanted to bake (Betty Crocker muffins) were out.
Feeling defeated, I found myself picking up toaster-oven meals from a prepared-foods boutique. My first excursion set me back something like $30, whereas I would have spent less than half that preparing the same dinner from scratch in a working full-size oven.
About the same time, I realized it was my turn to host book club — and I panicked: How could I keep my spending resolve and not buy expensive appetizers for my friends?
After penning an apology message to my club for the lack of oven-made quiches and baked Brie bites, I offered to serve a platter of cheese and crackers and fruits. Much to my relief, my friends were really helpful and accommodating — one even brought over a full-size portable oven for me to borrow for the next several months!
It wasn’t enough to offset the financial damage of those ready-made gourmet meals, however.
By the end of the third week of the month, I realized I had already spent $735 — or $35 a day — on groceries! It was a far cry from my goal of $30 a day, which meant that I would have to up my game.
So I decided to nix smoked salmon (a Sunday morning breakfast treat) from my shopping list. I also bought less-expensive, non-organic produce whenever possible, especially the ones with peels, like pineapples and cantaloupe.
Week 4: The Results Are In
On May 1, I bit my lip as I logged into my Bank of America account.
I was shocked to discover that — holy freaking cow! — I only spent $955 in April! That’s $31 a day on groceries, a $7-a-day savings from January and a $4-a-day savings over March. I was ecstatic. Considering our oven broke, it’s amazing that I was able to save anything.
On my first outing in May, I got a little lazy and picked out lots of things without a list. But before I checked out at the register, a wave of guilt washed over me. Why hadn’t I checked the circulars online first? Did I really need organic onions and pre-cut mushrooms?
After putting a few things back, I decided to keep the weekly circular-checking habit, and to continue perusing the community mailings for coupons.
My takeaway: Finding enough deals to save at least $5 a day on groceries takes only 10 minutes a week once you get going. And trust me — the savings are so worth it.