The $25/week grocery challenge

My partner and I are not in dire financial straits. This is not financial or nutritional advice; it’s just a fun project I started to challenge myself. We spent money around the holidays. Who didn’t? We didn’t spend ourselves into any crisis. I think it’s important to acknowledge that I’m doing this from a place of fun/challenge and not out of life-sustaining need; it frames the whole experience through a specific lens. Self-imposed austerity as a game is an entirely different experience from the externally-imposed austerity of poverty. At any point, I can decide it’s too hard and go back to buying whatever groceries I want to; that’s an enormous privilege. Now that I’ve gotten the disclaimers out of the way, on with the game:

Before the game, I spent $75-90/week at the grocery. This includes food and non-food (toilet paper, paper towels, laundry detergent, etc.). For two adults, with no special diets or allergies, who are not fussy eaters, who eat an omnivorous diet with minimal amounts of processed food. Because I plan and because we are very flexible eaters, our food waste is close to zero. For the most part, I don’t buy organic produce unless the price is somewhat close – if it’s double the cost, then it’s just pesticide salad for us! I buy hormone-free, antibiotic-free, ethically-raised meat and wild-caught fish (a tip of the hat to my friend Erica who coined the term “emo-meat” for this category/preference in the realm of meat-eating). Except pork. For some reason, pork in that category is about three times as expensive, nearly impossible to find and some of the products (sausages, bacon) are just nowhere as tasty. And no, I will not be substituting chicken or turkey for pork.

I’m not a hoarder or extreme couponer with a “stockpile” (though there are very entertaining shows for that). That said, we started with a freezer full of meat that I had bought on sale (turkey wings, turkey legs, a few pounds of hamburger, a couple pounds of cod, lots of individually-wrapped sausages and bacon (more tips on this later), beef chuck roast, beef chuck steak). We also had: lots of cans of beans, lots of dried beans, lots of rice, cans of crushed and diced tomatoes, olive oil, canola oil, many boxes of pasta, condiments of almost every kind, a fully-stocked spice/herb rack, plenty of coffee, tea and a whole bunch of soda (we had stocked up on sugar-based soda while on vacation in Canada), a decent supply of salty snacks (chips, crackers, etc.) and candy. We were also pretty stocked up on toilet paper, paper towels and laundry stuff. Historically, my shopping methodology is to spend $75-90/week on food allocated first toward what we need to make meals and secondly to buy whatever is on sale or a good deal that is on the regular roster of food/stuff we use. Speaking of …

One key material is THE PLAN. Or rather, having the time/interest to do about an hour’s worth of planning each week. My meal planning goes like this: I brainstorm 3-4 meals I could make with food that’s mostly in the house; minimal ingredients are needed to make the meal. Important: this is fun for me, it’s not a chore. I’ve done it for years and I did it when we shopped on a full budget.

The difference in the $25/week challenge is that I have to think extra hard to really keep the additional ingredients to a minimum AND I am not stocking up on staples/easily-used foods (canned tomatoes, certain cuts of meat) at my previous rate. Example: before the challenge, when grass-fed ground beef went on sale for $4.59/lb, I bought 10 pounds, knowing that we could use that within ~3 months. In the ensuing weeks, I’d write a plan that used 1-2 lbs of ground beef per week. I had a rolling, reasonably-sized stockpile. A note about the stockpile size: We live in a tiny house. We have a standard-size freezer (actually, at 17 cubic feet for the whole fridge/freezer, it’s kind of small). We have a few shelves in the basement. I am not an expert at long-term food storage because we just don’t have the space for that. Nor do I have an interest in tying up our cash flow in tuna futures.

This challenge means I will eventually burn through and not maintain a stockpile. It’s a blog post all on its own but suffice to say that watching a food supply run out is its own side-challenge for someone like me who likes to (nay, often needs to) be prepared and to have a plan. I guess this is a long way to say that the $25/week project is probably not sustainable year-round because eventually I’ll run out of all of the starting materials and buying all the ingredients for 3-4 meals for $25 seems like a long shot.

I feel like it’s not enough to tell you that I plan. That’s like those saving advice columns that tell you to “skip your daily latte” when you haven’t even had a “monthly latte” in your whole life. So here’s how I make the plan:
1. Treasure hunt! I spend 5-10 minutes opening the freezer and fridge, looking in the pantry and taking note of a few items I’d like to use. Example: Open freezer. “Oooh, a 4-lb chuck roast.” Open pantry. “Yay, a whole bunch of black beans.”

2. Sit down with a few favorite cookbooks and an Internet-enabled device. Sometimes I see an ingredient (like the beef or beans) and know exactly what I want to make (this is from years of being an avid home cook) and sometimes I browse the books and/or Internet for recipes featuring the ingredient. Once I have the first meal decided, I am careful to notice if that meal will use a partial something. To explain: I decide to make a soup that requires 3 potatoes. It is most cost-effective to buy a 5-lb bag of potatoes vs. buying 3 individual potatoes. However, the cost difference is (literally) tossed out if I buy the bag, use 3 potatoes and let the rest rot. So, I start with that soup but any ingredient “leftovers” now start to inform my subsequent selections. Three potatoes usually weigh 1-1.5 lbs so I start thinking about what I can make with 3.5-4 lbs of potatoes that also doesn’t use much beyond what we have in the house. For me, this is like a puzzle. It’s entertaining. So in the parlance of concepts like opportunity cost, yes, this is “worth my time.”

3. I write the meals on one side of a 4″x6″ note card (low tech systems!) and the ingredients on the back of the card. If I am making a new recipe, I note where the recipe lives (a book, a print out from a recipe site, etc.). If the recipe requires any day-before prep, I note that too (so I’m not caught off-guard). Bonus organizational tip: Printed recipes that I am going to make get clipped into a magnetic chip clip that lives on the side of the fridge. They’re easy to find and it makes a good off-the-counter recipe holder. If the recipe is a winner, I put it in a plastic sheet protector and add it to my binder of printed recipes (right next to my binder of women!)

4. Now, this list is made. Yay! I shop at the same grocery store every week. I am familiar with the prices of the stuff I buy regularly. So, I look at the list and estimate what it will cost. If it’s about $25, great. If it’s under, I take a quick look at the weekly sales flyer and see if there’s a good sale on something we’ll use or need. This is like the rolling stockpile method, lite version. Example: this past week, I was way under but noticed boneless pork butt was on sale. There’s a recipe I want to make next week (Pozole) that requires a 4-lb boneless pork butt, so I added it to my shopping list.

5. To execute the plan, I shop from the list on the back and make meals from the list. Some people find this too rigid (“I don’t know what I’ll want to eat next week,” “That’s too planned for me”) but what I love about doing this is that it allows for a certain planned spontaneity. I can choose any meal from the list while knowing that everything is in the house; I don’t start cooking only to find out I’m missing something. I don’t have to check or shop before I make each meal.

That’s it; that’s the plan. The more you plan, the more experience you have about which meals “naturally” link to others, which meals require minimal, low-cost ingredients (that you really like to eat – the point isn’t to make cooking and eating totally un-enjoyable). I’ve seen blank faces and what looks like “that sounds hard/intimidating” on faces as I explain how I plan. All I can say is that it might be a bit overwhelming to start, but it gets easier as you do it. You should feel more competent and confident each week. If it always feels stressful and horrible, maybe this isn’t the right work for you. There’s a very good reason that, in our house, I do all of this work and my partner chooses other jobs entirely. The misery and overwhelm for her would not be worth it. And that’s a long way to say: this may not be for you and that’s OK.

You’ve done a lot of reading. You deserve a picture. Here’s this week’s recipe list and shopping list:
Front (list of meals):
Menu Card Front

Back (shopping list):
Menu Card Back

Note: While at the store, I seemed to be a little under so I bought a bag of egg noodles and a pound of Italian hot sausage that was a manager’s special.

There’s really only one rule: Don’t spend more than $25 per week on groceries for as long as is reasonable.

Why $25? Some people do things like “fiscal fasts” where they try to spend nothing. That’s too hard. Moreover, it can be too easy. By spending nothing, doing no shopping, you avoid having to confront or challenge your regular patterns of behavior. I could have decided to “eat pantry” (I first heard that phrase from Reese Witherspoon, in an interview on Conan) but in some ways that’s easier than being in a grocery with myriad options and only $25 and staying focused on the goal. Honestly, I chose $25 arbitrarily. It seemed low enough to be challenging but enough to get a few basics every week. Depending on your circumstances (number of eaters in your house, special diets, amount of stuff you already have in the house), you’ll need to set your own number that’s a challenge for you.

There’s another rule: Stop when it gets too hard. If it is too time-consuming, stop. If it becomes something I dread rather than an interesting challenge/experiment, stop.

There’s one last rule: Some cheating is OK. It’s OK to ask a friend coming over to bring something small – that’s one less thing to buy, freeing you to buy something else you also need. If something is acquired outside the $25 via non-cash means (no, I don’t mean stealing), it doesn’t count. Loopholes are another way to keep the game interesting.

I’ve got five weeks under my belt now, I’ll be creating a separate post for each one with a photo of the week’s items. I’ll also write a tips and resources post that includes information on where I shop (why I shop there, what I buy), cost-saving stuff I do, my favorite cookbooks and recipe resources.

There are a few reasons to make this project public:
1. Hey, I’m a little proud. Not everyone can do this and I feel a bit accomplished. Yay, ego.
2. I like to help. Even before this project, people often asked me about meal-planning, grocery shopping and in general, economizing without living in miser misery. If I’m doing all this thinking and work, my hope is that sharing it will help other people.
3. Interaction! If you give this a try, I want to hear about it. If you have ideas, comments, feelings, thoughts, etc. I want to hear about it. Selfishly, I want to benefit from your wisdom and experience; I am also curious to hear about where and how you struggle, what choices you make, etc.


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