It took us a while to figure out how to plan, list, shop, and budget for our groceries. (For us, "groceries" means all consumable goods.) These things are all related, so you really need to do all of them in order to do any of them well.
The first step was creating a master shopping list. I used this
software to do it, but there's a lot of different (free) ones out there. It took me about four hours, total, to enter all the information that we needed into it. While the software offers some options, how I used it is as follows:
We shop at four stores, Wal*Mart, SuperOne, the $1 store, and our co-op. We buy oxyclean and packing supplies at the $1 store, meat, produce,flour and Fels Naptha at SuperOne, bulk and hard to find items at our co-op, and other dry staples at WM. I entered the things we buy under the heading of the store we get them at. The list automatically alphabetizes itself.
In the case of Wal*Mart, which is enormous, I entered a letter before things in a like category to take advantage of the alphabetizing. In other words, my entries look like, "A Castor Oil", "A Toothbrushes"; "B Toilet Paper", "B Washing Soda"; "C Cornmeal", "C Gluten". This way, things stay organized, but we don't wander all over the store. Plus, the way WM organizes things is somewhat counterintuative (they want you to wander around and spend lots fo $ looking at stuff you don't need). We always go to the health and beauty section first, then walk to other side of the store and start at the back, where the TP, etc. is, so we never have to backtrack, we grab our listed things off the shelves almost exactly in the order that they are listed. This saves us tons of time. (We go to WM once a month, and we are in and out in an hour or less.)
Because we eat virtually no convience food (okay, DH has a strong liking for Morningstar Farms Buffalo Wings) and we make almost all of our cleaning products and toiletries, the number of items that we buy regularly is under 100, even counting all the different spices and fancy vinegars that DH has to have in order to work his gourmet magic. (Also, the only disposable items we use are TP, Qtips, cotton pads and razor blades- other than that we are an all cloth family, and that really helps a lot, both for staying under budget and for list simplification.)
Because we replenish our supply of staples, our meal planning is minimal. All we ever have to do is make sure we have the neccesary produce, and rarely dairy/meat, on hand to make whatever special dish DH wants to create. We have all kinds of staples to make whatever other dinners or whatever we want without really having to plan. (This is called the pantry principle- for a more thourough discussion of this, read The Complete Tightwad Gazette or Cut Your Food Bill in Half.)
We do our shopping in a once a month trip. We do a mini store run less than once a week, and only ever for produce. (Dairy and meat freeze.) Six months out of the year, our farmer's market is open and it's within walking distance, so that makes it very easy.
To make our list, one of us sits at the computer and reads (well, yells) off the items, while the other person stands in the pantry. This is like inventory. Then we rack our brains if there is anything else we possibly need that's not the list. If there is anything, it is almost always a nonconsumable good- like new washcloths or ice trays- that we just may as well get since we're out anyway.
When I get home, I look over our receipts to enter the prices into our list software. This allows the list to keep a running tally of the amount we are going to spend, so when we print it off, it's right there. It also allows us to adjust our list before we even leave to make sure we stay under budget.
We also always take a scientific calculator with us when we shop, as it allows us to keep a running tally. This kind of calculator costs about $12 and is awesome. It is able to give you really precise numbers and show you how it got there. (For example, this past shopping trip I discovered that, when pricing by the sheet
, instead of the roll, Scott tissue is the cheapest TP. So we bought the 12 pack for $7, which is nearly a year's supply for us since we use family cloth.)
We have a strict budget of $250 a month for groceries. This is everything- toiletries, food, cleaning supplies, everything. If we bought pizza rolls and bagels and Pantene and Tide, there's no way we could stick to it.
DH bakes once a month. I am merely his assistant. Other than a quick batch of muffins or pancakes now and then, all the baked goods we'll eat for the month are cooked then- bread, english muffins, hot dog buns, tortillas, etc. We freeze these. In the rare case that DH miscalculates, it is my responsability to make quick breads (cornbread, fruitbread, soda bread, Cuban bread or popovers) for the next day or two until we can have another giant baking day. This system also eliminates the need for store runs.
I do the more utilitarian side of cooking, too. I make syrups, yogurt, condiments and goodies, and I feed the freezer to ward off takeout for the nights that DH doesn't feel like cooking.
As one final thing, we have a list on the fridge of things to take with us shopping: Cloth bags, string produce bags, water bottle, sippy cup, snack for baby, calcuator, list, pen, clipboard.
I know that this post was really long, and it seems intimidating, but we developed this system over three years. In order to keep our budget this low, we MUST stay organized.