Inflation is real. Prices went up. A lot. Here’s how you can win…
My grandfather used to tell me about the size of the Hershey bar he could get for a nickel. Today, a nickel won’t pay the tax on a candy bar so tiny it won’t even ruin a diet.
We measure the inflation numbers by looking at the Consumer Price Index (CPI).
The CPI is a basket of goods and services that most consumers buy. When measured over time, in theory, we see the percentage prices changed. But, there are two problems. One, the stuff in the basket gets swapped out– “rebalanced”–from time to time. So, it’s not exact measure. Also, it primarily measures an urban group of clerical workers. To be fair, it hits a little under 90% of the United States, but–not me, exactly. I don’t buy a lot of the things in the basket, so the numbers didn’t look quite right to me. I did my spot check using base prices of stuff I knew I could always get on sale for a certain price, or things I use–like chicken food–that generally have predictable prices.
When gas prices rose, it didn’t impact me since I work from home.** But when chicken food jumped from about $13 to $16 overnight, I noticed. That’s a 23% increase. The sale price of mayo was no longer $2.99, it was $4.99–a 66% increase. Milk went from $2.49 to $2.99 at my local warehouse store–up 20%–but that’s a loss leader designed to get me in the door. It went increased much more at the local grocery store. Pasta, which I can get for $.75 to $.99 on sale, was $1.99 at the local discount store. That’s a doubling in price.
My friend posted a sale price of Stacy’s Pita Chips. It was over $8.00. For $8.00, I want Stacy to come to my house and make pita chips in my kitchen. I would never pay that price for a chip, unless I got kidnapped by a weed convention. So, when I see viral posts with shock prices like that, I dismiss the data.
You don’t have to pay those prices!
Really, you don’t. And you shouldn’t. I see people panicking about prices–posting “now’ and “then” food hauls, memes, and talking about extreme couponing again. I kept prices in check–down to pre-inflation levels for many things, without coupons. You can, too.
Here are a few tips.
INVENTORY MANAGEMENT: “Did I buy this or am I running out?”
Americans waste 25% of the food we buy. Do you know the products and ingredients you use? Really use? And, how much of each will get you to the next sale, shopping trip, or season?
Taking inventory lets you know the stuff you eat and use vs what you buy because it’s on sale or because you think you should eat it.
By taking frequent spot-check inventories, I know how much fruit, veggies, meats, pastas, beans, and other pantry ingredients we have and use. Then, I get only the things I’m short on–and enough to get through to the next season or sale.
For most people, this means knowing what items you’re low on and knowing the best sale prices to buy in at. For example, I know that one type of canned tomatoes goes on sale for 99 cents each Thanksgiving and Christmas. Although I can my own tomatoes, I use this brand from time to time. Also, canned tomatoes last over a year, so if I buy what I’ll use in a year, every year, I’m getting this product at the cheapest price for the year.
When I don’t pay attention to inventory, I get overrun. That saves me a ton of cash. Two prime examples: ketchup and barbecue sauce. I now know my family only uses a couple bottles a year, so there’s no need to go nuts stocking every Memorial Day sale season.
I’ve learned to do this with the things I can and freeze, too. “Can you make something besides apple sauce?” I checked my shelf and sure enough, I had apple sauce and jam dated back for years. We just don’t eat the stuff. We do make a lot of smoothies and yogurts. Now, every fruit season, I dehydrate for the year, or freeze or can fruit for smoothies and toppings.
I have one small victory story about not paying attention, too. Before Covid, I bought an extra 48 pack of toilet paper. “Did I buy this or did I mean to buy it?” That was the one time bad inventory management paid off, but in general, I stick to the “what I need” and round up a little due to wonky supply chains.
Pantry stocking 101
I’ve always hated shopping, and I like in season food. So, for anything I can pick, forage, can, dehydrate, or make, I keep what I need until the ingredients come around again.
Do you really know how much of something you use? Before I really paid attention to inventory management, I had seven bottles of ketchup, a ton of toothpaste, shampoo I didn’t use but found on sale, and was tossing produce because I bought more than I was able to cook or freeze.
For most things, this is a general awareness more than a panic mode spreadsheet. The worst that can happen is I get stuck running out of kleenex and buy them not on sale or I run out of homemade peach salsa and eat something else.
But, during the pandemic people were very nervous about things like toilet paper and yeast. If those things matter to you, then you need to know how much you use. Get that much plus a little extra. For some people, the goal is getting to the next sale. For others, it’s being prepared for an emergency. Mine is never running out and not having to go t the store.
When I was teaching, I used to keep way too much stuff in my pantry. I overbought and overcouponned. Things went bad, expired That’s a waste of money and space.
Avoiding the lazy tax
Being lazy costs you money. You’ll waste. Peak inflation is not when you want to waste. Every dollar you don’t waste is good for your wallet, good for the environment, and an all-around good habit to have.
ROTATE YOUR STUFF
Stores rotate stock to keep ingredients fresh. If you’re keeping a deep pantry–buying enough of something to have a backup or two on your shelf, remember to put the new things you buy in the back. This sounds simple enough, but when I come home and dump bags on the floor, or try to cram one of something in a space where one of something doesn’t fit, I don’t always rotate properly. I get lazy. Taking that extra five minutes to finish putting groceries away means I’m using things that need to be used first. Wasting food because I didn’t rotate it–that’s the lazy tax.
PLAN & EAT FROM THE PANTRY
“I’m hungry now… I’ll just pick up something quick.”
“I want to cook this, but I’m missing (an ingredient).”
“I need to stop for milk.”
No one stops for milk. I’ll get twenty other things. I avoid this by making my list ahead of time and then getting what’s on that list. If I run out of something before the next trip, I eat something else. “There’s nothing to eat,” is never true in my house. It’s only “Mom, we’re out of Oreos.” That’s not a special trip to the store. Neither is “I’m hungry and want to eat now.” I plan meals ahead of time, or I can Iron Chef up something from the ingredients on hand. Otherwise, I’m overpaying for food I don’t intentionally want, or impulse purchases. That’s the lazy tax at its prime.
Instead, get to know your pantry and cook what you have rather than shopping for what you think you want. That’s hunger talking. I guarantee you once you start cooking from your pantry--things you want the way you want them–you’ll struggle to go out to “blah” restaurants again.
LEAVE THE FAMILY AT HOME
Taking my kid shopping raises my bill by 20%, guaranteed. Maybe more. I don’t mind getting people what they want, but if I take them, they’ll spend more. If you’re hard core inflation busting, send a designated shopper out into the battlefield. Make it the person who’s most efficient, and send them alone. That doesn’t mean to skip the treats. Just keep a list and make people put their things on the list. Then, everyone gets what they want and no one gets nonsense just because it’s staring them down in the aisle.
KNOW YOUR PRICES & GO TO THE SOURCE
Going to the “regular” chain grocery store is a recipe for disaster. Sure, they have sales, and when they do you should take advantage. But, there are just some things you should buy elsewhere. Here’s some examples:
I used to get pounds of coffee from a local place until I reached out to the roaster directly and asked if I could bulk buy. They said yes. I got 15 pounds. I stored the extra properly and saved a ton. I didn’t give up my expensive coffee, I just went to the source and saved 33%. I had to drive to pick it up, but I did it when I was already in the area doing other things. [Here’s my “be your own barista” post. I’ll add to this.]
I use a lot of nuts for cooking and things like homemade almond milk. I bulk order once every couple months at the place that supplies chefs and stadiums. I get spices and international ingredients at global markets–I have favorite Chinese, Indian, Latin, and Middle East markets. Global ingredients are about fifty percent less at the stores with the cuisines that use them.
If you don’t have global markets, you can shop online. You may pay a bit more but you’ll still save compared to going to The Regular Grocery Store.
I have a few stores on my rotation. I shop when I’m in the area or when I can group errands together. I know where it’s best to get each item. Milk and dairy are cheapest at my warehouse store. Discount stores like Aldi, Price Rite, and Walmart sometimes make sense, too, but not for just one thing (unless, like coffee, it’s a big thing). Just being aware saves me a ton.
“I DON’T HAVE TIME!”
This is one of those time vs. money things. If you need to save, you make the time. But, don’t go crazy running to all the stores–that just doesn’t make sense, either. Your time has value.
Planning, done well, shouldn’t take a million years. I don’t go to twenty-five stores for one thing each. I keep lists for each store. When I’m in the area and the list is long enough, I’ll go to that store or a cluster of stores in a certain area. I get what I need there when it’s priced well. This lets me get the best prices without wasting time.
I don’t use delivery for groceries, but for you, it may make sense as long as the delivery cost doesn’t cancel out the savings. Even if it does, if it keeps you from impulse buys or if the opportunity cost of not running around lets you make more cash or get mission-critical things of value done, it could be worth it.
Let’s face it, We’re a culture of takeout. Learning to cook your favorite take out meals will go a long way to inflation busting. Restaurants have to double their costs to stay in business.
The pandemic proved to many people that they could cook great stuff at home. Keep that up! Even though you can go out now, plan your takeout for nights you really want that food and skip the “too tired to cook” takeout. That one commitment alone will go a long way.
I started hard core meal prep and planning because I often eat differently from the people around me. I’ve been a vegetarian, but I also tried some extreme eating regimen for health purposes. That made it harder to grab a quick meal or go out. Having stuff I loved ready to grab made all the difference in the world. And, it saved money.
COOK ONCE, EAT OFTEN
I never make a single serving of something. I make double, triple, or more. For example:
- Prep salad for the week:. Chop the base (the stuff I put in every salad), then add separate toppings and dressings to mix it up for the week.
- Make three frittatas or quiches instead of one–different flavors. Then, slice up and freeze in meal-sized portions. Take what I need out when I need it.
- Boil a dozen eggs, not one. Then, I eat them or make egg salad or use them for salad toppers.
- Make a giant lasagne, zucchini parm, a bunch of burritos, whatever. Slice and freeze for individual meals.
- Roll out about five dozen meatballs and can or freeze for the next ten meatball meals.
- dips, dressings, and sauces: I make salad dressing, hummus, and dips like queso in batches and use them during the week.
- Bulk-chop veggie sticks. I eat a lot of them. No sense cutting up a carrot when it takes me three extra minutes to cut a pile of carrot, zucchini, or celery sticks and have them for the week.
- Keep smoothie kits on hand: I manufacture these in batches. These are containers I make five or six at a time by chopping fruits and veggies and freezing. Then, when I want to make a juice or smoothie, I just dump them into the blender with a liquid.
- Make a week’s worth of excellent oatmeal (I like steel cut oats with some dried fruit) and put in individual serving jars for the week.
All this takes very little time. If I do a complete week prep on one day, it could take a couple hours. I don’t usually do that. I cook throughout the week when I’m in the mood but I prep for the long haul. Then, I have a bunch of stacked and prepped food staring me in the face when I’m threatening to go to the store for one thing or order takeout.
HAVE AN EMERGENCY COOKBOOK
Sometimes I do not have a bunch of well-prepped food staring me in the face, or I’m not in the mood for it. I’ve got an emergency plan for that. It’s a bunch of recipes that I love that can’t remember when wandering through the kitchen, bored and hungry. I take a look through the list and I always find something I forgot about that’s exciting enough to keep me from Chef Takeout. I make soups, curries, bao, pizzas, scrambles, stir fries, tapas… whatever.
When I find a great recipe I love, I put it on that list.
THE BOTTOM LINE (TL;DR)
By having a well stocked pantry, planning ahead, cooking excellent food, and buying things at the places where they’re the least expensive, you can take a bite out of inflation and eat like a chef at the same time.
**This is the “broketeacher” blog. And, that’s who I was when I started it. I left teaching in 2018, but that “once a teacher, always a teacher” thing… I keep writing here because none of the teachers I know are millionaires yet, and you all keep spending your paychecks on those back to school sales no matter what I say.