Every year, I find myself thinking a lot about a few “hot topics.” I want to save more money, I want to be healthier and I want to achieve a better work/life balance. After a few years of setting lofty and nonspecific goals, I finally learned that the trick to progress was thinking small.
This is especially true with our family finances. I am openly verbal about how terrible I am with money. It isn’t that I am irresponsible — it is just that I am not very organized. So, I knew that simply saying, “I want to save X dollars every month,” wasn’t going to cut it. I needed a concrete plan for saving money, and it needed to require very little effort on my part.
So, this year, I decided to try an experiment to see just how much the small choices I make could help me to save more money on our biggest expenses.
For an entire month, I committed to buying only off-brand items while grocery shopping for my family. Typically, our groceries are one of our biggest expenses, second only to our mortgage. I really hoped that giving up more expensive, brand-name foods would cut our budget by a lot.
Getting started was easy enough. The first week, I decided I would avoid temptation altogether by heading right to our local Aldi, a budget-friendly grocery store that only carries off-brand food, or so I thought. I blazed through the store quickly; I have shopped there for years, and my mother shopped there when I was a child, so I quickly filled my cart without thinking twice about cost comparison.
As it turns out, I should have been a little more prepared to practice self-control. The week before, I had learned I was pregnant, and morning sickness was in full swing. I had been living on grilled cheese and La Croix, a sparkling water that was definitely not off-brand and definitely not budget friendly. As I rounded the last aisle and made my way toward the checkout, I spotted it: my favorite flavor of La Croix was taking up an endcap, a rare treat at a store that never carries name-brand items. It was calling to me and, in my excitement, I grabbed a few packs and slid them under my shopping cart.
It wasn’t until I got home that I realized I had broken my own rule. I felt guilty at first, but quickly got over it when I realized I had not only bought my favorite drink ever at a deep discount, but I had also spent almost $23 less than I normally did on my weekly grocery script.
For week two, I wanted to switch things up. I was curious if I could still carry out my challenge at a different grocery story. I went to Sprouts, a grocery store that carries mostly organic and “healthy” foods. Within five minutes of walking in the door, I was frustrated. Sprouts carried a lot of store-brand and off-brand items, but they were not very budget friendly. A can of conventional black beans (as in, not organic) cost almost 50 percent more than what I had spent at Aldi. Now, when you are talking about the difference between 59 cents and 99 cents, it may not seem like that big of a deal, but those little differences add up.
To add insult to injury, there were a few essentials I absolutely needed that were only available in a name-brand option. At checkout, I resentfully handed over my cash when the cashier told me my total, which was $20 more than what I normally spent and almost $50 more than what I had spent the week before.
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I returned to my beloved Aldi, but it didn’t go as well as I had hoped. I still came in way under budget (by about $27), but I left without a few items I needed because they didn’t carry them at all. I found myself a little annoyed that I would be shuffling my kids in and out of another grocery store that day, especially as nap time drew nigh.
The last week, I made an impulse decision. It had been a long couple of weeks, and my two toddlers and I were starting to get on each other’s nerves. My older daughter skipped her nap that day, and I was really desperate to have a little bit of quiet. So, on a whim, I loaded my girls into their car seats, put on a podcast and made the 45-minute drive to our not-so-local Trader Joe’s. I knew that Trader Joe’s, like Aldi, only carried store-brand or off-brand items, and I knew that I could get everything on my list.
Within 10 minutes of setting off, both girls fell asleep and I enjoyed a blissful hour of silence while I took the scenic route to the store. I was really happy with how the shopping trip went, too. Not all their prices were super cheap, so I had to be a little more selective about the quantities I was buying and I had to avoid the allure of their prepared foods and specialty items. (The pull of cookie butter is real. So real.)
Still, I was able to walk away under budget and I was much happier with the produce.
As I wrapped up the month, I thought about how much I had saved and what big lessons I had learned. I had saved nearly $75 on groceries that month, which isn’t a fortune, but every little bit matters when you are trying to pay off student loans. I also learned that some rules are meant to be broken, especially if it means satisfying a pregnancy craving while stocking up on an on-sale, name-brand item.
I was also pleasantly surprised by how the foods tasted. We don’t buy a ton of packaged foods, but I do rely heavily on boxed mac ‘n’ cheese to get me through busy days at home. I was a little worried about how my girls would respond to off-brand, which had a reputation in the mom world for being gross. Still, they gobbled it right up and asked for seconds — I opted out.
In the end, this is one practice I am willing to hold onto. Buying off-brand didn’t really require any extra effort, as long as I picked the right store and didn’t cook with any uncommon ingredients I couldn’t find at my local discount stores. A little extra cash goes a long way, and if all I need to do is switch brands on the foods I am already buying, I am more than happy to make the change.
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