Reducing your grocery bill

Reducing your grocery bill

ILLUSTRATION: CEM KIZILTUĞ

June 18, 2012, Monday/ 17:07:00

Last week I gave an overview of what I believe frugal living to be: a way of engaging in smarter spending, learning to make do with what you have and managing your income in often creative ways. It is not drudgery, but rather can be a positive experience -- especially when you see your savings grow.

It’s my hope that you will learn some new ways to save money in a way that won’t affect your current chosen lifestyle too much.

This article focuses on tips for saving money at the grocery store. When I used to shop, I would wander through the aisles, just picking up whatever caught my fancy or was on sale. This method of shopping turned out to be very expensive; I was always surprised at the register and shocked when my credit card statement arrived. Using the ideas I present here has greatly reduced my spending on food.

Your food budget

When I say “food budget” I mean the food that you eat at home -- not your morning Starbucks or restaurant visits -- that will be covered in the “entertainment” section in a subsequent article. Food will always be a category in everybody’s budget. To decide how much you should allot per day, the first step is to track your spending over a two or three week period and then divide the amount by the number of days you tracked to get a daily average. Then make your daily allotted spending just a little below that (so that you are saving money). For example, if you figure that you are spending an average of TL 25 a day on food, make your limit TL 20 or (for the very brave and adventurous) TL 15. You’ll be amazed at how easy it will be to come under budget. You’ll also become more creative with recipes, learning how to make more with less.

As you’re shopping, keep an estimated running tally in your mind. To help you do the math more easily, round up the number. For example, if the item costs TL 2.85, call it TL 3. If you want to be more precise, use the calculator function on your cell phone. If you find yourself going above your limit, you can choose to go ahead and purchase the item anyway and make it up later, or you can choose to do without the item.

Make a list and stick to it

I found that when you make a list (and stick to it), you are less likely to impulse shop and you are better able to remain on budget. The only time I buy something that I did not specifically set out to buy is when I discover an incredible sale. If imported bananas were suddenly marked down to TL 2 from the usual TL 4+, believe me, I would buy them whether they were on my list or not. When I used to come to the store without a list, I can’t tell you how many times I went to the supermarket for veggies and some milk or cheese and walked out of there with a basket full of items. Having a list keeps you on track with your spending goals.

Another shopping tip: Don’t shop when you are hungry. I’m not the first to say that, but it’s true. If you go to a store when you are hungry you are more likely to buy junk food and you’ll end up spending more money than you planned to. If you eat something before shopping, you’ll be more likely to stick to your list.

Shop around

It’s a good idea to shop around so that you get the best quality product for the lowest possible price. There are three or four shops where I do all of my grocery shopping. At one place, they sell eggs, staples (bulgur, rice, flour) and dairy products at rock-bottom prices, another place has decent vegetables and the third place has a brand of products which has the lowest prices that I’ve found yet for items I use a lot like vinegar.

For nuts, baking soda, cocoa powder and dried fruits, I take a trip to Eminönü where I can find some sweet deals. It’s a good idea to browse from storefront to storefront to make sure you find the best price for what you are looking for. Always keep your eyes peeled for loss leaders -- items that are ridiculously priced to entice you into the store.

Know your cupboards

The other day I did a major spring cleaning and was amazed at how much food I had stored -- I had enough lentils (red and green), brown rice, bulgur, quinoa, oatmeal, cornstarch and bread crumbs to practically start my own restaurant. By reorganizing my cupboards and labeling everything clearly, I now know what I have on hand so I don’t rush out and buy more in a cooking emergency.

Take advantage of sales

How did I end up with so much in my cupboards? Well, most of it came from sales. When oatmeal dropped by nearly 50 kuruş a box, I bought a couple of boxes. When I found brown rice for TL 3 a kilo less than usual, I stocked up. The only caveat I would add about stocking up is that you can’t buy the stuff and forget about it. Otherwise you won’t be saving money in the long run.

Cook ahead

Once a week I cook a couple of big batches of meals and/or soups so that I have quick and nutritious meals ready to go. I generally freeze them in portion-sized amounts. This is a great thing to have for after a long, hard day at the office when I don’t really feel like cooking. When I didn’t have the ready-made meals, I used to just order takeout and pay the price later when my credit card bill came.

I toyed with the idea of cooking ahead for a month once, but the electricity goes off much too frequently to be able to do that. However, having weekly meals pre-cooked and ready to go has been a lifesaver for a couple of reasons. First, it keeps me from running to yemeksepeti.com to order takeout. Second, having precooked meals helps me to ensure I am eating well-balanced, nutritious meals and finally, it saves me time in the long run.

Eat at home

This leads me to another tip: Eat at home. Of course, I’m not saying never go out -- that would be unreasonable, but I am saying that if you eat more meals in than out, you’ll save a ton of money and you’ll find that you can make similar meals for less than half the price of a restaurant and often they will be much better tasting. If you aren’t such a great cook or if you want to get ideas on how to find ingredients here in Turkey or learn some new recipes, you can join the Facebook group: Cook’s Corner for Expats in Turkey. You can also go there to share your knowledge and help others.

Freeze your veggies

Fresh produce abounds in Istanbul. However, have you ever gone nuts at the weekly market and bought up all of those fresh, lovely fruits and veggies only to find that over the week, you weren’t able to eat them all before they started to go bad? I’ve had that happen so much that when I go to the weekly market and am tempted by all of those lush, amazing, fresh fruits and veggies, I am careful in my purchases. If the item is in season (and therefore more reasonably priced) and can be frozen -- like spinach, basil or strawberries, I buy double what I would normally. Half of the product I use during the week and the other half I freeze for later use. If they don’t freeze well -- like oranges or carrots -- I only buy what I am sure to eat during the week.

Bake from scratch

The last time I actually noticed the price of a brownie in a café or in a restaurant, they were anywhere from TL 5 to 8 each. The supermarket prices for cakes and cookies are less. However, with some basic ingredients such as flour, sugar, oil and baking powder, you could make cakes and cookies from scratch, saving you a ton of money. After baking them -- once cooled -- you could store them in the freezer. Baked products can last for about three months in the freezer and thaw very quickly when taken out.

Eat less meat

My final tip for saving money at the grocery store is to eat less meat. You don’t have to become a vegetarian, but adding a few meatless dishes to your repertoire will save you big at the cash register. You can also stretch your meat -- for example, if you are making a meatloaf or hamburger patties, you can add breadcrumbs, some onions and peppers, an egg and some spices to get more from your ground meat and still end up with a delicious end product.

Following these tips has saved me more money than ever. I have now brought my grocery spending down to under TL 300 per month -- and I’m eating well; I get enough veggies and protein in my diet and I never feel like I’m doing without. With the money I save on groceries, I can choose to save it or spend it on something else. Next week I will share my ideas on how to save on your entertainment expenses and more.