So, here’s what you do. Keep a spending diary. No, it’s not a super-exciting suggestion. It’s rather dull, in fact. You keep a record on every food or drink item you buy over the month. Yup, four whole weeks of scribbling it all down. What you’ll get from this tedious task is an accurate account of where your money goes. You see, once you know where it’s going, you can divert some of it elsewhere, or keep some of it back in a savings account/piggy bank.
Get yourself a dirt-cheap notebook, or staple together several sheets of paper. (Your spending diary doesn’t have to be attractive!)
Okay, let’s pretend you’ve kept your diary. You’ve got your data. You can see what your average weekly spend is. Uh-oh, it’s more than you thought, isn’t it?
Now, set yourself a goal. Don’t be unreasonable. Cutting your food bill by 50% sounds great, but is it achievable on a long term basis? It’s better to start off with a lower target. That way you hit the target, bask in a warm glow of smugness, then set yourself another goal, shaving a bit more off your spend.
Let’s say you’ve worked out you spend on average about £100 a week. You big spender, you! Your first goal could be to knock 10% off the bill. How could that practically be done?
1 – Cut out snacking, both your own and your family’s. Aim for 3 substantial meals a day and – if craving a snack causes you to feel like you’re about to gnaw your leg off – eat fruit not cake. Make that cheap fruit, so that’s apples not grapes. If not fruit, then carrot sticks or similar. Nope, not exciting, but 3 meals a day shouldn’t leave someone physically hungry. Most snacking is habit rather than hunger. Cut the habit, cut the bills.
2 – Cut out fizzy drinks and guzzling cartons of fruit juice. Think of juice as a treat, not an everyday necessity. Drink plain tap water and lots of it. It’s healthier and cheaper. You’ve paid your utility company to provide clean drinking water, so get it down. Your wallet will thank you, as will your dentist.
3 – Work out what fruit and veg are in season. The much maligned supermarkets have conditioned us to believe we deserve melons in summer or winter, strawberries at Christmas, cucumber all year round. But keep your eye on what’s in season and you’ll probably find not just cheaper produce but more local stuff too. At its most basic, understanding seasonality means buying lots of root veggies at this time of year. It means making aubergine based dishes when they’re 50p each instead of over a quid. (It doesn’t mean you can’t eat homemade lasagne in summer. Make loads when aubergines are cheap and lob the extra portions in the freezer. Food in the freezer is like money in the bank.)
4 – Consider alternatives to what you usually eat. If you buy boxed breakfast cereals such as cornflakes, you could switch to a supermarket own brand instead of Kellogs. But save more by switching to porridge. I’m a massive fan of the humble porridge oat. It releases sugar slowly into the body, meaning you don’t have a massive sugar high then a mid-morning ‘where’s a snack?’ slump. Porridge oats are truly economical and takes minutes to prepare. (Don’t bother with those boxed porridge products that offer sachets you can tip into a bowl, add water and microwave. Much more costly than a straightforward bag of oats.)
5 – Don’t take sugar in your tea/coffee. It’s bad for your teeth and your waistline, and it’s an unnecessary expense. Don’t bother replacing it with sweeteners either. I reckon it takes about a fortnight of screwing up your nose and moaning about how awful sugarless tea or coffee gets before your tastebuds get used to it. Soon you won’t even miss it. Honest!
6 – buy fewer bags of pre washed salad leaves. Rocket’s dead easy to grow your own. If it’s in the garden it’ll self-seed too. Dandelion leaves are edible, just don’t pick ‘em from a polluted roadside or where dogs are liable to pee! Pea shoots are easy-peasy to grow. Buy a box of dried peas, sow a couple of handfuls liberally in potting compost, wait until the shoots are 3 or 4 inches high, then cut ‘em and throw into the salad bowl. The humble bean sprout is bland but nutritious. There’re plenty of articles online on how to sprout your own. The trick with salads is the one restaurants know well. You bulk out a salad with cheap ingredients and are miserly with the expensive ones. When carrots are at bargain-bin prices, grate them in salads for taste and colour.
7 – learn how to store groceries, especially fruit and veg correctly. Should the banana go in the fruit bowl with the apples and oranges? Should you put your spuds in a cool, dry place or on a sunny windowsill? Should celery be stood in water or thrown in the fridge still in its plastic bag? Don’t put your bread in the fridge where it’ll dry out and keep flour in air tight containers to avoid chucking it out ‘cause the weevils are in residence.
8 – look up and down the supermarket shelves, not just at what’s at eye level. Be prepared to make a reasonable effort to find what’s cheaper in the same store. In my local Asda the tinned veggie section has organic canned chickpeas and no non-organic ones on show. A couple of aisles across in the World Food aisle there’re regular chickpeas about 20p a can cheaper than organic ones. Look at the price labels on shelves. Logic says buy in bulk and you get it cheaper. Logic isn’t always right. You might find a packet of whatever for £1.00 for 500g. But it’d work out cheaper to buy 2 x 250g bags if they’re 40p each.
9 – soup is expensive when bought in cans, cheap when homemade. The same principle applies to tomato based pasta sauce. Learn to make your own and keep portions of either in the freezer for when its needed.
10 – don’t buy sliced loaves from supermarkets when they’re full price if you can help it. Practically every store sells off bread on a regular basis in order to clear shelves for newer stock. My large local Sainsburys knocks theirs down in price on a Friday evening, while my nearest Tesco Metro reduces bread, fruit & veg at about 9.00pm weekdays. The trick is to work out when your store is good for a bargain, buy at least 2 loaves and cram them in that freezer. Good for toasting or for – mmmm! – bread and butter pudding.
Okay, that’s enough for now. Get your notebooks out and pens poised, time to start a spending diary. You could be quids in.