Category Archives: Food

Sunday Morning Grocery Store Games

Inspired by Retire By 40’s “Do You Feel Guilty Over Impulse Purchases“, I thought I’d explain how Mrs. Pennypacker and I shop for groceries.   We don’t like spending a whole lot of time in stores.  Our goal is typically to get in and out as fast as possible.  So, to ensure a speedy and successful shopping mission, we make a list and plan out the most efficient route through the store.  Now, we don’t normally keep track of exactly how long it takes, so yesterday we decided to get the stop watch app out and see how fast we could do it.

Wal-Mart was the target for the day’s grocery shopping operation.  Mrs. Pennypacker guessed we could do it in 15 minutes.  That seemed a little fast to me, but I kept my mouth shut and pressed the start button on my phone.  Mrs. Pennypacker manned the cart going after most of what we needed, while I shuttled back and forth between the cart and various aisles around the store grabbing miscellaneous items like yogurt and tea.  It was going well; we were close to done; we just needed to pick the right checkout lane.  We pushed past the first few lanes and settled on a winner – a reasonably fast cashier halfway through a moderate stash of food staples.  A few minutes later, we were out the door.

Our time was 13 minutes, 19 seconds.  We tracked it from the moment we grabbed a cart to the minute we exited the store.  Now, before you say, “Impossible!”, keep in mind this was 9:30 on a Sunday morning – not exactly rush-hour.  We also don’t do all our grocery shopping at Wal-Mart, so it wasn’t like our cart was overflowing.  Next time we’ll have to see if we can get it done faster.

I floated the idea of splitting our grocery list in half and competing against each other, but Mrs. Pennypacker usually does the cooking and the Wal-Mart shopping.  She pointed out, that I wouldn’t know what brand, or how much of each item to get.  Great point.  She’d easily beat me.

Either way, if your household can find a way to make grocery shopping fast and fun, you might find you make less impulse buys and do a better job keeping your budget in check.

Do you ever make a game out of grocery shopping?

If We All Pitch in, we Can Put an End to Shopping Cart Madness

Do you every visit the grocery store, do some shopping, and leave the store only to find your car getting extra cozy with a stray shopping cart?  Do you ever pull into the parking lot and watch, as shopping carts crisscross, almost in a choreographed dance, searching for their favorite targets – car doors.  Sometimes I find myself strategizing as I enter the grocery store parking lot, trying to determine the one parking spot that will be immune from those unwanted advances from strange carts.  My awareness becomes especially heightened if I enter a sloped lot on a cold, windy day.  I call this shopping cart madness.

It always amazes me to see how many people abandon their shopping carts next to their cars after they’ve finished unloading them and are pulling out of their parking spot.  It’s not that hard to return your cart.  I always think if you can push a full shopping cart around a store and then all the way from the store to your car, surely you can push an empty cart back to the store, or at least to the nearest cart stall.

I used to work at a grocery store collecting carts in the parking lot and it amazed me to see the lengths people would go to in order to avoid returning their carts.  I’ve seen some people try attaching their cart to another cart thinking that two carts couldn’t possibly roll off together.  I’ve seen people prop the front wheels of their cart up on a curb.  These people certainly show an understanding of the runaway cart problem, but I can’t help but wonder why a few more steps couldn’t have been taken to send the cart back to a return stall.  I’ve even seen a person launch their cart so that it careens on its own all the way to the back of the parking lot.  This particular incident actually narrowly missed another car entering the lot.

So how do you fight the madness?  Here’s what I do to combat runaway shopping carts.  First, as I’m walking into the store, if I pass by a stray cart, I adopt it as my own and continue on my merry way.  Second, as I finish unloading my cart and I’m about to take my cart back to the nearest cart stall, I look around to see if there are any other stray carts that can join me on my journey.  Third, if I see a store employee collecting carts near me, I take my cart directly to him or her.

My hope is someone else will see me returning the carts and be inspired to do the same.  If we all pitch in, we can put an end to shopping cart madness.

Can Food Be Healthy and Cheap at the Same Time? You bet!

There’s a myth floating around out there that healthy food is expensive and the only way to eat on the cheap is to cook up some Top Ramen or visit your favorite local fast-food drive-thru.  But, according to this Lifehacker article there’s a cookbook out there that can show you how to eat healthy spending only $4 a day!  That’s pretty darn cheap!  Good and Cheap is a cookbook written by Leanne Brown with food stamp recipients in mind.  It gives you tons of recipes and breaks down the cost of the ingredients as well as the cost per serving.  And, this isn’t just a collection of 50 ways to prepare beans and rice. The book includes a wide variety of recipes for things like soup, taco salad, banana pancakes, and even desserts.  Whether you’re looking to make drastic cuts in your budget or you’re just looking for a few inexpensive alternatives to mix into your existing meal planning, this book could be a great resource.  

Your food budget can certainly be a major challenge when money is scarce.  But there’s no reason you have to sacrifice health to make your budget work.

Going Out to Eat Doesn’t Cost as Much as You Think

Here’s one area where Mrs. Pennypacker and I differ.  I love going out for lunch when I’m at work.  It gets me out of the office and gives me a chance to recharge so I can go back and finish off the day strong.  While Mrs. Pennypacker on the other hand, prefers the quality of food she can get by eating a homemade lunch.

Yesterday I went with my co-worker to one of our favorite spots, Chipotle, and grabbed a chicken burrito.  Yum!  But, it does cost about $7 and almost $9 if I get a soda.  Maybe if I brought my lunch from home I could pocket that $7 and save up for new patio furniture.

You often hear financial advisors preach that bringing your lunch to work is one of the best ways to save money.  Say you spend an average of $7 every time you go out for lunch.  Then, if you completely cut out the restaurant trips, you could save $35 per week or about $155 per month.  Sounds great, right?  Well, it’s not that simple.  What they fail to mention is that lunch you’re bringing from home isn’t free.  At some point, you had to buy you lunch’s various components from the grocery store.

Last year, Mrs. Pennypacker and I figured out how much we spend at the grocery store per meal.  It turns out we spend $3 per meal.  So, when you’re doing the math to figure out how much you save by not eating out, you have to take into account the price of that ham sandwich you’re bringing from home.  The actual savings would be $4 per meal or $20 per week or $104 per month.  Now you if you really wanted to, you could start going to cheaper fast food restaurants (you know, those ones with the dollar menus) and probably get this differential down to 0.

Of course, there are a few other factors that could come into play.  Gas, for example.  For me this is a none issue because I don’t travel more than a couple miles from work to get a burrito.  I’m also not taking into account the time it might take to drive to the restaurant or the time it could take to prepare my meal at home (time is money).

In any case, going out to eat may not be the money waster some people make it out to be.  It all depends on where you go and how much money you would otherwise spend on grocery store lunches from home.  And, if you like the idea of saving money, but don’t want to give up going to your favorite restaurant, consider a compromise – cut back your restaurant lunches to a couple days a week.

Grocery Cost Per Meal

A few days ago Mrs. Pennypacker and I were trying to figure out how much we spend per meal on groceries.  We took a look back at the numbers for the last few months and we estimate we spent about $111 per week on groceries.  This number includes food only, no toiletries.   So assuming there are six meals per day (three for each of us), that comes out to 42 meals per week.  Now I go out for lunch three times a week while I’m at work and Mrs. Pennypacker and I go out for dinner or lunch once a week together.  Mrs. Pennypacker works from home so it’s pretty standard for her to eat her lunches at home.   That takes our total grocery meals down to 38 per week.  So if we divide $111 by 37, we get $3 per meal.

So what kind of food do we eat?  In general, we buy a lot of fresh produce and generic brand foods.  Not a whole lot of processed or pre-packaged foods.  To give you an idea, a typical breakfast might include a protein (eggs, sausage, or a peanut butter sandwich), a fruit, and a carb (homemade muffins, bread, or oatmeal).  Dinner includes a meat, a carb (some rice, potatoes or quinoa), and a vegetable (salad or various cooked veggies).  Lunch is leftovers from dinner.  We also eat two or three snacks per day.  Snacks include nuts, chocolate chips, yogurt, cold cereal, fruit, homemade cookies or granola bars.

There’s a myth that eating on budget and eating healthy don’t mix.  But, I think we’ve found a way to do both.

How much do you spend on groceries per meal?

Do you really save money shopping at Costco?

You can.  But be careful.  Don’t go in blindly grabbing everything off the shelf thinking, “It must be a deal, after all we’re in Costco.”  Watch out for these hazards:

Membership fees

At Costco there are two membership levels for individuals:  Gold Star and Executive.  Gold Star costs $55 per year while Executive costs $110 per year but you get 2% cash back on all purchases.  If you plan on spending at least $2,750 per year at Costco, the cashback will make up the difference in fees. Mrs. Pennypacker and I have the Execute membership because we usually end up making some sort of large purchase every year.  Last year it was a vacation to Hawaii.  But, we’re only two people.  So, normally it would be difficult for us to get enough cashback to make up for the difference in membership fees.

Long Lines 

Time is money and waiting in long lines at Costco is a waste of both.  The best time to go is first thing in the morning.  Even on Saturday, most folks don’t make it in until after lunch.  When I go, I usually like to get in and out as fast as possible.  I like to make a game out of it by planning out the shortest routes between products and avoiding the crowds gathered around the free sample tables.  If the lines aren’t very long, I can usually make it out of there in 15 minutes or less.

The impulse buy 

If you walk into Costco without a plan, it’s pretty easy to stray off course and grab a pair of designer jeans or talk yourself into a new set of garage tools.  An hour later, your cart is full and your simple grocery trip has turned into a windfall for some neighbor at your next garage sale.   Before you go in, make a list and stick to it.  Once you’re through the doors, drive your cart directly to each item on your list and then to the checkout line.  See if you can make it out of there in 15 minutes.

The allure of buying in bulk 

Buying a gallon of mayonnaise only makes sense if you’re really going to use it all before it spoils (actually I can’t think of any scenario where buying a gallon of mayonnaise makes sense).  We only buy certain things from Costco.  Mainly items that are either non-perishable, frozen, or have a long shelf-life.  Some examples are frozen chicken, frozen fish, TP, paper towels, gum, and granola bars.  Large quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables will tend go bad before you can use them all up.  Remember, just because tuna is on sale doesn’t mean you saved money by buying twenty cans of it.

The Costco price 

Costco does not always have the lowest price in town.  There are many cases in which a product cost more per unit than your standard grocery store.  Make a list of things you buy at Costco along with their prices and compare them to your local grocery store.  Be sure you are aware of any differences in the units of measurement each store may have when pricing items.   A bag of apples may be priced at $1 each at one store and $1 per pound at another.  It is often the fresh foods that are pricier at Costco.  While the toiletries and frozen foods tend be the best deals.  You don’t have to do all your shopping at Costco.  But when in doubt, buy frozen chicken and TP from Costco.

Pricy name-brands 

Stick with the Kirkland Signature brand if it’s available.  It’s usually cheaper and can be better quality than the name-brand equivalent.  We always go for the Kirkland chicken and TP.

Costco offers many other benefits that can come in handy: 

American Express 

It helps to get the True Earnings American Express card.  You get 3% cashback on gas, 2% cashback on travel and restaurants, and 1% cashback on all other purchases.  We feel like the cashback from this card more than pays for our membership fee.

Cheap gas for your car

Yes Costco usually has cheaper gas, but beware.  The long lines may not make it worth the few cents you might save.  I usually stop for gas on my way out.  But if there is any sort of line at all, I usually just skip it and fill up at the 7-Eleven on my way to work the next morning.


If there’s something on sale that we normally buy (and it has a long shelf life), we try to buy as many as we can.  Typically the sales have limits on the number you can buy.  It’s rare that we see anything on sale worth buying other than either dental floss, toothpaste, or granola bars.

We certainly don’t buy all our groceries at Costco, only the items that make sense.  So do some research and make a plan before you make your next Costco trip.