Blog, Essays, Handy Hints, Recipes

How To Shop On A Budget – from A Girl Called Jack

These are the handy hints in the front of my first cookbook, A Girl Called Jack and are as useful now as they were then – it’s advice I give readers all the time, old and new, so I thought it would be handy to pop it here too:

WRITE A LIST AND STICK TO IT. It sounds obvious, but I only generally have two kinds of shopping experiences. Those where I walk into the store, list in hand, doggedly stick to it and come out with everything I need and no money wasted. And those where I run in in a hurry, flail about, grab things I don’t need, and berate myself all week for wasting money and forgetting certain essential items. The first few times may feel awful. Many a time, as a single mum on benefits that were suspended or delayed, with no spare money in my bank account and just a handful of change, I found myself standing in the freezer aisle staring at luxury ice cream. Picking up the posh coffee and just remembering what it smelled like. Calling a friend in tears, beaten, because I didn’t have any money for butter. Not even the value brand butter. I didn’t have any money for butter. It’s the small things that can be the most defeating, sometimes. A list, to me, was a triumph. I could get to the end of it and feel I had achieved something. I ticked things off. I doodled joining-up lines between the beans and the tomatoes and wrote ‘chilli?!’ in the margins. I could create my way around the supermarket with a tiny goal and feel at the end of it that I had done something right. If nothing else, make a list for the sense of achievement. Make it by category ‘Proteins, Carbs, Fruit, Veg, Storecupboard’ so you know at a glance that you are getting something akin to a balanced diet. Make it for your sanity. And stick to it.

INVESTIGATE THE TINNED AISLE. Tinned fish, tinned potatoes and tinned fruit are usually all cheaper than their fresh counterparts – and with far less pressure to use them up by the end of the week, so they reduce food waste, too. In my worst days I ended up turning off my fridge. It was empty anyway. Tins are a godsend. I still panic if I run out of tinned kidney beans or tinned tomatoes. Get yourself some tins.

BUY FROZEN GREEN VEGETABLES. Green veg, folks, is expensive. You’d think it would be dirt cheap to try to encourage us to eat it, but it’s expensive. And leaves go limp at the turn of a day. According to Love Food Hate Waste, leafy veg is one of our most-thrown-away items. Sod it. Buy it frozen and use it at your leisure. Some of it even comes pre-chopped, like a sous chef in a bag.

GET ON YOUR KNEES. Supermarkets spend eye-watering amounts of money analysing shoppers behaviour and positioning things accordingly. Expensive items are generally positioned on higher shelves, for the posey kudos of having to stand on your toes and stretch like a cat for your Charlie Bighams £7 macaroni cheese, I guess. By contrast, the plain value branded labels can generally be found near the floor. Get down there and scrabble if your knees will let you. Nobody cares. Nobody is judging you. Nobody is even looking. You’re buying beans. They’re buying beans. Let’s just all get on with it.

DOWNSHIFT ONE BRAND AT A TIME. If you normally buy a premium brand of a product, drop down to the one below. If you buy the supermarket own brand, try it in their value range. And so on. Just buy everything slightly more price-consciously than you did last week, and notice the difference at the checkout. Then see if you notice a difference in your cooking. If you really can’t stomach one thing or another, then switch back next week. It’s just a week. You might just be surprised by how good some of the value brands are… I can’t bring myself to buy anything but basic chopped tomatoes, veg, fruit, pasta, etc these days. Plus the orange-and-white tins have been repurposed as pen pots and plant holders around my little flat, so I need to keep up my collection – it matches.

TAKE A WALK. I have moved house thirteen times since my now-five year old boy was born (mostly under difficult circumstances – I’m hoping this one is . Every time, one of the first things I do is go for an amble around the streets around my new front door, and poke my head into every shop that I can find. You’ll be surprised where the bargains are – I have found chickpeas cheaper than the supermarket’s own in a little fags-and-booze shop, cheaper toilet paper in the hardware stores, and things marked down for quick sales in the most surprising places. Ethnic food stores are excellent – supermarkets are expanding their ‘world food aisles’ to compete with their prices up and down the country. I am lucky enough to live near some competitive fruit and veg stores that sell more exotic wares cheaper than mainstream stores, with fat green plaintain cheaper than bananas, but apples are a side-eyeing 50p each. Wander, explore, note down, smile, say hello, make friends. It’s not always practical to shop around the entire neighbourhood, but is useful to know where the emergency cheap loo roll is, or the big bags of spices. My old butcher used to love a chat, too, despite me never picking up much more than the odd heart or liver and occasional chicken. Be friendly, and there’s no harm in asking for bones or scraggy bits. They can only say no, after all.

BUYING IN BULK DOESN’T ALWAYS MEAN IT’S CHEAPER. Most shelf labels in major supermarkets will now give you the price per unit, or price per 100g, as well as the larger product price. If a big bag of pasta is 40p/100g, but the value stuff is 10p/100g, buy a few bags of the value stuff. It’s hard work at first but quickly becomes second nature.

WHAT HAVE YOU GOT? I make a shopping list divided into four sections: Protein, Carbs, Fruit/Veg and Storecupboard – and before I leave the house to go shopping, I rifle through my cupboards, fridge and freezer and note down what I already have in those categories, before drawing a line under it to make my list. It helps to plan meals, keeps in mind what needs to be used up, and stops a pile of useless tins accruing in the cupboard.

WRITE A MEAL PLAN BEFORE YOU GO SHOPPING. Plan meals using similar ingredients (use the search bar tool on my blog to help) and incorporate anything you already have in the cupboard, fridge or freezer.

DON’T BE AFRAID TO SUBSTITUTE. Use one green veg instead of another. Any vinegar will do, or lemon juice, where vinegar is called for in a recipe – it’s just a bit of acid to lift some flavours, don’t worry about keeping several kinds. Pasta is pasta, rice is rice. Red wine in slow-cooked dishes can be swapped out for strong black tea – yes, really – as it’s the deep tannin taste you’re after in a casserole, risotto or bourgignon.

TAKE A PEN OR CALCULATOR WITH YOU. I keep track of costs as I go, marking them next to the item on my shopping list, and totting them up to avoid nasty surprises at the checkout. In the darkest moments when I would get to the till and realise my shopping was more than the cash in my hand, it made deciding what to leave behind a little easier (it’s never ‘easy’, but you hopefully get my drift). Shoe on the other foot, occasionally there would be a completed list and a little left over, so I knew exactly how much I had to treat myself, too. Usually a tin of Basics custard, or a jar of lemon curd, but it’s the little things that make all the difference sometimes.

If you have any shopping tips for tight budgets, or any money saving ideas to share, please share them below so we can all learn from each other – thankyou.

Taken from A Girl Called Jack and adapted for the blog. November 2015.

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This site is free to those who need it, and always will be, but it does of course incur costs to run and keep it running. If you use it and benefit, enjoy it, and would like to keep it going, please consider popping something in the tip jar, and thankyou.