As I mentioned in my last post, part of my current strategy for survival on an extremely limited budget involves finding ways to shift some expenses from the cash budget to the food stamps budget, mostly by using homemade cleaning products that rely on ingredients like vinegar, and handmade soap, which uses cooking oils. In order to do this I need to make sure that I spend my food stamps wisely, so that I have enough both to keep my family fed for the month, and be able to buy those few extra things I use for cleaning. Fortunately this is not difficult.
A lot of these ideas are things I'm sure you've heard before, as the grocery budget is the one we all have the most control over, no matter our financial situation. There are a few things I do differently, but these are based on my own personality quirks - Your Miles May Vary :) A lot of what I do is tied in to my whole Philosophy of Food, not all of which is about saving money.
First, let me say that I'm a huge fan of Michael Pollan. In The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food I found someone making a case against processed food and industrial agriculture who was able to back his assertions up with facts, naming specific studies and their results. He cites his references, and includes a bibliography so that you can find the original studies and see the results in context, should you so choose. Here, for once, was a true journalist who came to his conclusions as a result of his research, rather than looking for research to support a conclusion. This was no zealot nutjob, this was someone whose conclusions I was able to take seriously, and it's made a tremendous difference in how I view food and where it comes from. That being said...
I cook almost everything from scratch. My personal beliefs about highly processed food aside, I do find that I spend less. I can buy cumin, oregano and chili powder, combine them with other pantry staples, and have a year's worth of tacos PLUS I have those seasonings on hand for anything else that calls for them! No need to spend .99 on an envelope of "taco seasoning" that has almost as much sugar as spice, and I can decide we're going to have tacos on the spur of the moment without having to worry about whether I have taco seasoning on-hand! I've managed to find recipes for most of the convenience foods I used to buy (e.g. macaroni and cheese, and ranch and Catalina dressing). Some of them (though by no means all!) take a little longer, but taken as a whole, they do work out cheaper in the long run.
I only buy what's on sale. I hear a lot of "keep a sale price diary" so that you know how low sale prices go on certain items, and how often. I'm not quite that organized, but I do know what the lowest sale price on certain things is, and when it hits that price I try and stock up. I only buy ground beef or boneless chicken breast when it drops below a certain price. I buy chicken leg quarters and separate them into thigh and drumstick myself. I buy bone-in thighs and bone them myself. The bones go into the freezer (along with various vegetable trimmings), and when I have enough I make chicken stock. The chicken stock gets frozen in ice-cube trays, and the resultant cubes go into a freezer bag. Did I mention I have a freezer chest?
I have a freezer chest! It is absolutely worth its weight in gold. It allows me to buy things in bulk that I would never have room for otherwise. It allows me to make my own "convenience foods" in large batches because I have room to store it all. It takes the same amount of time to make four gallons of chicken stock as it does to make one, and I'm more likely to actually do it if I don't have to do it very frequently. It allows me to freeze leftovers of big meals that otherwise would go bad, because no one wants to eat chili four nights in a row. It also means that DH doesn't complain that he can't fit his beer mug in the freezer because I've gone and stuffed it full of food of all things!
I'm a very "seat-of-your-pants" cook, so I ignore the advice to plan a weekly menu. The idea behind that advice is that you look at all the supermarket flyers and plan your meals for the week around the sale items. It's a good idea, but it doesn't work for me. My version of this idea is to be a Really Good Cook! I buy lots of basic ingredients (see first point), so when it's time for dinner I can look at what I have and decide what I want to make. I'm not dependent on recipes, although I sometimes use them, and I know when it's safe to leave out or substitute an ingredient I'm missing. It achieves the same basic goal - to have the majority of your meals based on what's on sale or what's on hand - but it has a great deal more flexibility.
I no longer bother with warehouse club stores. Sure, it's cheaper than the supermarket, but only on the brand name items they offer. Most of the time the supermarket brand was still cheaper than the warehouse brand name price. Yes, when there was a warehouse store brand version of something it was cheaper than the supermarket store brand. Unfortunately most of the items I found these savings on were for things I no longer buy - namely packaged, processed food. The few remaining items (milk, cheese, butter, etc) do not offer enough savings to make up for the annual fee and the gas to get there.
I do not bother with coupons, except maybe store coupons (as opposed to manufacturer's coupons). With rare exceptions, manufacturers coupons are all for processed food that I no longer buy. Even when I run across a coupon for something I want, I find that the store brand is frequently still cheaper than the name brand, even with the coupon. Occasionally there will be a sale on a brand name item I want while the coupon is still valid - then it will be cheaper than the store brand. If I already subscribed to the Sunday paper and was getting the coupons anyway I'd be willing to keep an eye out for these deals. As it is, I'd have to spring for the paper once a week in hopes of finding coupons for food I was willing to buy combined with those items being on sale sometime soon. Way too many "ifs" for the amount of effort involved.
I have a vegetable garden. Many people don't realize that food stamps can be used to buy vegetable seeds and plants, as well as food! My garden is fairly small, and it's only in its third year, so I'm still on the uphill side of the learning curve. Some things work and some don't - and I try to distinguish between things I did wrong and those problems that are the Gifts of Mother Nature so that I can learn from my mistakes (Mother Nature's mistakes I can do little about). I have not given up just because last year was awful for tomatoes and this year my cucumbers may not last long enough to provide me with pickles :( I will try again next year! In the meantime, I no longer have to buy fresh herbs from the supermarket!
I found that my local farmer's market has a grant from Wholesome Wave that allows them to give 2-for-1 food stamps. For every real food stamps dollar, I get two farmer's market "credits." This puts the farmer's market produce on par with (or cheaper than!) the supermarket prices, which allows me to indulge my philosophical penchant for local food while staying within my food "means." I like the idea of keeping my money (more or less) in my community. A lot of farmers are on food stamps, too!
I can. It is not my primary form of food storage, nor is it necessarily even cheaper, as far as just plain condiments go - not until the garden improves. It costs me more per pint to make my own blueberry preserves than it does to buy a pint of store brand grape jelly. It is, however, much cheaper than the comparable "gourmet" blueberry preserves you might find at the supermarket, and I know exactly what has gone into it. For me the biggest cost savings in canning is the ability to give the results as gifts! Food as Gift is another way to transfer cash burden from Real Money to Food Stamps, and my family always appreciates the fruits of my labor.
Sadly, the one thing I don't do as much as I'd like is bake my own bread. My daughter won't eat my homemade bread (it's an autism thing - I think she dislikes the texture) so I need to keep store-bought on hand. While the rest of my family is quite happy to eat my bread, and expresses a desire for me to make it more often, I find that when it comes time for them to make their own sandwiches they automatically reach for the pre-sliced bread, and mine goes either stale or moldy. Since the most expensive food in the world is the food you waste, I no longer bother.
It does, however, make wonderful bird food!
*Disclosure: If you buy something from Amazon through the links to the Michael Pollan books I get a few pennies.