Ask Katy — Grocery Budgets and Locomotive Shirts

by Katy on May 15, 2009 · 13 comments


I receive frequent questions from readers, and as helpful as I think my answers are, (so-so) it’s your answers that always knock my socks off. So here are a couple more questions for you to tackle.

From Gila, who is parenting a finicky three-year-old boy:

I have boxes and boxes of hand-me-down clothing, but my 3-year old refuses to wear them, because he only wants “locomotive shirts” and “soft pants”. and I can’t find those at the second-hand store. so before I go on a baby-gap shopping spree (anything to prevent these 45-minute morning tantrums!), I thought I’d ask you 🙂 thoughts?

My advice to Gila would be to take a deep breath and let her son wear the clothes he likes. Little kids have very few aspects of their life that they get to control, and clothing options are a pretty innocuous area. I would not recommend that she go on an expensive shopping spree in order to provide her son with an entirely “locomotive shirt and soft pants” wardrobe, but to let him choose from what she already has, even if that means repeating the same few outfits over and over.

Another strategy would be to let friends and family members know about her son’s clothing taste, and let them choose train shirts, (and soft pants) as birthday and holiday presents. Grandparents usually want to buy gifts that that cater to the child’s particular tastes, and enjoy finding just the perfect thing.

This time of life passes all too quickly, and he’ll soon grow into other clothing styles. Give him a snuggle and let him make his own choices.

This question is from Erica, who works part time in addition to parenting busy twin toddlers:

I’ve really been enjoying the NCA and I have a few questions for you. With this economy, we’ve completely revamped our budget (something we should have done a long time ago…)

Anyway, I’m curious – how much do you allot for your monthly grocery budget? I am EXTREMELY frugal – a super couponer/bargain hunter/stocker-upper and I feel like prices are still so high!

On average, we spend around $600-700/month. I’ve had to cut out organics in a lot of areas (milk – 4 gallons/week, grapes – 5 lbs/week, bananas 5 lbs/week, bread 2 loaves/week, etc)

Also, it’s such a pain to go to 3 different stores, but Trader Joe’s doesn’t have everything I need, Safeway has some great bargains I stock up on, and then I go to Costsco for bulk items about once a month.

Any tips from the Master Frugalista???


I don’t have a specific budget for food, but my family of four is spending approximately $450 per month on food. This includes work/school lunches, meals eaten out and groceries. I would like to be spending less, but this number seems to stay about the same every month. Keep in mind, my 11 and 13-year-old sons eat as much, if not more than the adults in my household!

I do use coupons, but it is almost exclusively for things like $10 off $50 at Safeway, loss leader items at Fred Meyer like butter and eggs, and cereal, (I’m a Raisin Bran enthusiast.) We also shop at Trader Joes’ for a few items like edamame, bleu cheese, and toilet paper, and Costco for yeast, chicken and coffee. This may sound like we’re driving all over town for our groceries, but we try and buy in bulk so that we can make the trips as infrequent as possible.

I’m very flexible about what kind of fruit I buy. With the exception of bananas, which my husband likes to always have in the house, I’ll buy whichever fruit is on sale that week. Yes, I like grapes, but I only buy them when they’re less than $1 per pound. The same (buy only when on sale) goes for apples, oranges and berries.

I go to Safeway for the bulk of our groceries about one-and-a-half times per week, Fred Meyer every 2-3 weeks; and Trader Joe’s and Costco monthly. Except for Costco, all these stores are pretty close to the house.

I rarely buy prepackaged convenience food, and cook almost entirely from scratch. This may sound overwhelming, but it’s really not. The meals I cook are pretty darned basic, and don’t enter the rotation unless they’re easy to prepare, inexpensive, healthy and tasty. I will occasionally double recipes and throw the extra meal in the freezer to allow for a busy day. I don’t have a freestanding freezer, which would allow for more of this.

And of course, we do our best to eat our leftovers!

We don’t buy organic food for the most part. I know that I should, but budget is a strong motivator at this point in our lives.


  • Use coupons, but only for food you would have bought anyway.
  • Shop the different stores, but buy enough so you can hit them infrequently.
  • Cook from scratch, but keep meals simple.
  • Only buy the sale fruit.
  • Eat your leftovers.


What advice do you have for Gila and Erica? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

MJ May 15, 2009 at 1:04 pm

I don’t have children but we had little money when I was young and my mom shopped at thrift stores. I just remember wearing my favorite clothes every time they weren’t in the washing machine. I’m no worse for the wear 🙂 Have you tried letting him pick out his own clothes at the thrift store? Also I am very adamant about buying organic and a great place to get organics at a good price is a co-op. Ours carries anything you could possibly want in bulk and the prices are much cheaper than buying the small packages at regular grocery stores (don’t have a trader joe’s close so I can’t compare prices) Fred Meyer has the cheapest organic milk $5/gal. For two adults I spend $300 or often less on Organic food. But we supplement with home grown vegetables and chickens too.


Canadian Kate May 15, 2009 at 2:57 pm

Another solution to the locomotive problem might be to cut trains out of soft felt and have him help you glue them onto a plain shirt. Then overcast the edges to help hold it in place through multiple washings.

Fabric paints would be another idea (or you could even draw in tracks under a felt applique train.)

As Kate said, this will be a short term issue so find creative and cheap ways to solve it. Before you know it, you’ll be into dalmatians or racing cars or robots!


lala2074 May 15, 2009 at 7:14 pm

Hi, I’ve just had an idea inspired by Canadian Kate’s comment above.

Go to a fabric store and purchase half a metre of fabric which has train pictures on it. Cut out the trains and use a sewing maching to applique it onto the tops that he already owns.


Charlotte May 15, 2009 at 7:41 pm

For Erica: can you make your own bread? I find it more than worth to do an initial outlay for a breadmaker (around $60, though sometimes you can get a cheaper deal.) The ingredients for a loaf of bread will cost you 30c, *and* you don’t have to go to the grocery store as often, *and* the bread is so much better!


Jacquelyn May 15, 2009 at 7:51 pm

Gila: I suggest you go to the least lengths possible to accomodate any desires that are manifested in tantrums – yes, this is a temporary stage, but his ability to manipulate your actions by his tantrums will set a strong precedent for future behavior. Personally, I would say tantrums = same old clothes. Good behavior = let’s go pick out one new shirt or pants together today. I also love the idea of gluing/sewing/modifying what he already has to make it more likeable for him.
Erica: Katy’s advice is excellent, and I would also suggest researching organics a little bit so you can prioritize what you really should buy organic and what you can be more flexible on. For example, any fruit or vegetable you eat the skin of you would want to buy organic – if you peel the skin, not so much.


makenzie May 15, 2009 at 8:57 pm

i agree with applying trains onto shirts. can you find iron-ons anywhere?

and farmers markets!! cheap-healthy-local-green!!… and ooooh so tasty!!


Judy May 15, 2009 at 9:10 pm


We have become a family of soup eaters. I always buy food only on sale and usually with a coupon then at least once a week we have a big pot of soup which is healthy, filling, great for leftovers and easily uses up produce and potatoes that would otherwise be going bad.


Wynde May 16, 2009 at 4:02 am

I think it’s worth an occasional stop at the store
to only buy enough fruit that you’ll eat it before it spoils. Especially bananas, pears & fruit that spoils easily.

I wish I had a Trader Joe’s near me, but I know my food bill would go up if I did. My frugal thought would be to shop there only for specialty items.


Tara May 16, 2009 at 5:07 am

I think as far as kids clothes go( I am amother of three expecting #4 very soon) check your area consignment sales. Not the stores but the quaterly or bi-annually ones if you volunteer generally you shop early and train travel seems to be a popular item for little buys and you can usaully find them. I think the tantrums over clothes in my mind are not a big deal, it’s not a “big one” as I call things I don’t care for.

As far as groceries we also do not have a set fruits other than bananas that we keep on hand, I too buy what is on sale. Another suggestion that is not only economical but also usually much healthier is cutting out meat at least twice a week. We only have meat twice a week in our house and it is usually the same item made into two meals, for example a roasted chicken. The other thing is that Ericas family milk consumption seem a little high. We are milk drinkers, cereal eaters, and coffee drinkers and I also make a 1/2 gallon of yogurt a week. We go through max a gallon and 1/2 a week and this is with a fourteen month, three year old, and 4 year old. I limit my two older ones to a 4 dairy exchangers a day. Two glasses of milk, yogurt, and cheese a day for example. ThMy son would drink milk all day if allowed but it is not nutritionally necessary and very expensive. On average I spend around 100-150 a week and wekk eat very well.


Meg from FruWiki May 16, 2009 at 9:07 am

We’re still sort of battling with our food expenses. On the one hand, we want to spend less so we can save more. On the other hand, we love eating tasty stuff, refuse to sacrifice our health (unless we’re just craving the bad stuff, lol), want to eat locally and/or organic at least some of the time, want to keep buying from our locally-owned grocery store, want to minimize plastic packaging, enjoy eating out with friends, have a hard time scheduling trips to farmers markets, etc. And we have been doing so much better this past year than in years before.

Still, I do see ways we could do better. I know I should try to look for coupons for the branded stuff we do buy (stuff like ketchup, milk, etc.) I also need to not go crazy with more expensive items like gourmet cheeses. I know I could add more rice and beans to meals, though I want to also be careful about carbs (more so with the rice). I also think that we’d probably eat out less if we didn’t put off grocery shopping when we’re running low on stuff — and if we could get out to the farmers markets more that would be great. I also hope to get in the habit of eating more wild plants and backyard eggs. May I’ll try my hand at making some more stuff at home. And maybe I’ll get that backyard garden going again now that the rainy season upon us. And finally, I know I should see about incorporating more cheap veggies into my diet.

So, I admit, there’s plenty of room for improvement without having to compromise our health or values.


Debineezer May 18, 2009 at 7:03 am

Produce? Eat it in season. We’re eating a lot of chard lately, and if I try to buy it at the farmer’s market it’s twice as expensive. Why? Well, it’s not chard season yet here in Washington. Apples are $2/pound at the farmer’s market (and at Whole Foods) compared to the $4/pound for organic Fuji’s in October. Jeepers, I saw organic blueberries for $6.99 per half pint yesterday at Whole Foods. And you can get them for $2/pint at the farmer’s market when they’re in season.

We’ve gotten used to cooking with what we know whenever we want. You might consider a CSA…you’ll get whatever is freshest that week and be forced out of your box:)


Mary Anne May 19, 2009 at 3:35 pm

Regarding the clothing issue: my now 18 yr old was addicted to a whale shirt (it was actually a dolphin) that he just about wore out the summer he was 2 1/2. It wasn’t a big problem and eventually wore off. For the train enthusiast, I would suggest a trip to Big Lots to see what kind of iron-on train decals they have and buy up a few then just iron them on and every plain shirt can be a locomotive shirt!

I do not ever buy organic. I do not believe that the definition is strict enough to prevent fraud and abuse so I would not spend my money. I do have a co-worker who has an entirely vegetarian family so she buys all organic produce and milk. She feels it balances out since there is no meat to buy.


Erica May 25, 2009 at 9:42 am

Thanks everyone for the feedback (and thank you Katy!) I guess I should clarify that the $600-700/month includes things like cleaning supplies, TP and diapers (which will hopefully be gone soon!)

Tara – I agree about the milk consumption being excessive. I’ve started to limit and they’ve been drinking more water which has been easier on the budget!

I’ll definitely be checking out the farmer’s market and will consider a bread maker 🙂


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: