Save on groceries: How this single dad avoids overspending on food

How this single dad avoids overspending at the grocery store

This dad shops with a list but doesn’t have a grocery budget. Here are ways he can save


Name: Jeremy Messar *
Age: 45
Location: Toronto
Occupation: IT
Feeding: Himself and sometimes two children
Take home monthly income: $4,600
Monthly grocery spending approx: $400-$600
Grocery budget: None
Percentage of take-home pay spent on groceries: 13%

Jeremy had to adjust to an entirely new grocery budget when he became a single dad to Josh, 10, and Cassandra, 9 after a divorce four years ago. While married, he wasn’t in charge of the running of the household, but post-divorce, he quickly figured out a system that works for him and fits within his overall attitude toward money.

Although he doesn’t save much, he never takes on debt and makes thoughtful purchases. Still, even though he has a general idea of how much things cost and how much he wants to spend, he neither stresses over it nor does he run around town comparing flyers.

READ: How this Toronto nurse on a diet spent $150 at No Frills

“For the most part 10 bucks here or 10 bucks there, it’s not going to affect me too much on a weekly basis,” he says. As a busy working dad, he’d rather go to a grocery store where he knows the layout and what’s in stock, so he can get in and out fast.

“This weekend they’re coming to my house for five days, so I’ll go out tonight or tomorrow and do a big shop for the five days,” he says, “And I’ll pretty much write it out, each meal, what I’m getting them and what I’m going to cook for them, and it’s usually based on whatever is available to me at the market.”

His strategy is to find food on sale or find inexpensive cuts of meat. “I’m really lucky that both of my kids eat well and eat a lot and eat a variety of food. I’m lucky that I can kind of experiment on them,” he says.

Like many divorced parents, he doesn’t bother cooking much when he’s on his own. “When they’re not here, it’s usually leftovers from the five-day cycle, and you get a bit lazy and treat yourself out for dinner,” he says.

The bill he’s given us is from a Metro trip when he doesn’t have his children visiting, which is why it only totals $47.25. Yet, there are still plenty of suggestions we have on easy ways to save:

Buy in bulk

Jeremy’s spent $1.67 on a single onion here. Not a big deal, but rather a missed opportunity. Unless he specifically needed a special type of onion for a recipe, why not choose a 1.3 kg bag of Ontario-grown yellow onions for just $2? That’s about seven onions for the price of one. We know it can be tough for a single person to buy in bulk because produce goes bad so quickly, but onions, along with other longer-lasting root vegetables like carrots, beets, parsnips, radishes and turnips are exceptions and can last for weeks in the fridge.

Stick to your guns (and your list)

Jeremey said, “I find chicken is horribly expensive” and that when he does go that route, he “for the most part cooks chicken thighs. I think they’re the most reasonable cut of the chicken if you’re not buying it whole.” He’s right: you can get boneless chicken thighs for $13/kg, compared to boneless chicken breasts at $22/kg. So then, why has he purchased $10.12 worth of chicken breasts here if he knows better?

RELATED: How a single mom spends $600 a month on groceries

It’s not entirely his fault, since a grocery store is designed to make you spend money. “Grocery shopping, start to finish, is a cunningly orchestrated process. Every feature of the store—from floor plan and shelf layout to lighting, music, and ladies in aprons offering free sausages on sticks—is designed to lure us in, keep us there, and seduce us into spending money,” writes Rebecca Rupp in a 2015 National Geographic article on the sneaky psychology of supermarkets.

The best way to avoid falling into the trap the grocery-store marketers have laid for us is to come in with a list and a plan. That way you can stay focused and avoid distractions. The worst thing you can do is enter a grocery store hungry, unsure about what you’re eating for the week ahead. Shoppers only have about 40 minutes where they’re being rationally selective, writes Rupp, after which point their brain switches to emotional decision making.

It’s too overwhelming for your brain to make so many decisions on the spot  supermarkets contain about 44,000 different items and you’re likely to end up with stuff you don’t need, at prices you don’t want to pay.

Bargain-hunting > Brand-loyalty

Jeremy sticks to shopping mainly at Metro because it’s close to him, and it keeps the items he likes in stock. Yet, he also shows some major price consciousness because he does occasionally travel out of his way for a bargain.  “For example,” he says, “my daughter loves miso soup. The miso soup at Metro is like $5 for 3 of them, so I actually go down to Korea town…and I’ll get miso soup and so I think you can get 20 for $8.” Mom-and-pop shops offer some of the most significant savings, besides the discount grocery chains. As a plus, you’re supporting local business. He could shave off about 30 percent off his produce bill if he could find the time to shop for produce exclusively at these stores.

Bottom line

Jeremy has a few solid tactics up his sleeve on how to feed his family for just 13 per cent of his take-home income. But we think he could increase his price awareness even further by choosing cheaper grocery stores, and eschewing packaged items when possible.

He already is an expert meal planner when it comes to cooking for his family and if he could just extend that good habit when he’s cooking for one, he can shrink the total on his receipts even further.

*All names have been changed

This post is part of Spend It Better, a personal finance collaboration between Chatelaine and MoneySense about how to get the most for your money. You can find out more right here.