Household management with the ‘heir and a spare’ technique


Having a tidy, well organised store cupboard is a handy way to cut your grocery bills, and have a little extra put by for emergencies. There are many different ways to make and run an effective store of foods and other household items, but I tend to use something super-simple that’s sometimes called the ‘heir and a spare’ technique. It covers the absolute basics and doesn’t take up too much room or other resources.

First things first. Where does this phrase come from? Back when only men could own property, rich landowners often aimed to have at least two sons to ensure the inheritance of their land, buildings and money stayed in the family. The firstborn boy was the legitimate heir, and the second son was a living insurance policy in case the first son died before he could inherit. So far, so sexist, and also a pretty horrible way to talk about son two. Grim times, eh?

Meanwhile, there is absolutely nothing wrong with applying the ‘heir and a spare’ idea to inanimate objects in modern life, and finessing it. It’s simple, and once you get the hang of it the procedures practically become automatic behaviours, saving a fair amount of fuss in the long run. I find it much easier than messing about with spreadsheets and having to keep a very close eye on every single thing that’s in the cupboards.


How to make an heir & a spare store cupboard

For the heir and a spare process you take your most regularly used groceries, and aim to have three of the same thing – all shelf-stable items that don’t quickly go off such as longlife store cupboard foods, toiletries or everyday cleaning products.

That means:

  1. The one you have on the go (the ‘landowner’)
  2. An unopened one on the shelf (the ‘heir’)
  3. One extra on the shelf behind the heir (yep, the ‘spare’)


dried pasta store cupboard management

The basics of the process

Start by monitoring all the shelf-stable things you buy on a regular basis, keeping good notes – most people in the UK do a weekly shop, so just look at what you buy most of over the next few weeks.

Next, pick a few of your most commonly-bought items that fit the ‘heir and a spare’ pattern – you might like to start with your top five things as a priority list. If I remember correctly, our ten most-used non-perishable items here were pasta, rice, flour, tinned beans, tomato puree, snack bars, hand soap, laundry liquid, shower gel and toilet paper.

Once you know your priorities, you can begin to buy a little extra from the priority list for your stores here and there, looking out for offers [if you’re doing well financially, please consider donating to a food bank too].

Go at your own pace – when I was building up my priority items I only bought one small thing each week.

After coming back from the shops, put any new extras straight to the back of the shelf, so you don’t use them up in the wrong order.

Once you have enough ‘heirs and spares’ of everyday items in your stores, just go back to adding your standard regulars to the weekly shopping list, or set it to auto-add to your online supermarket shopping basket.

For example, a family that does a weekly shop and uses a four-pack of cans of tomatoes per week will have one pack of four on the go, and need four ‘heir’ and four ‘spare’ tins behind that on the shelf.


Other benefits of this technique

  • Usually saves money, especially with some large containers, multipacks and 3-for-2 offers
  • Gets slightly ahead of rapid price rises
  • Handy for flu season and self-isolating with covid, or other illness
  • Can soften the impact of redundancy or personal shocks such as bereavement
  • Saves on stress – never run out of everyday foods, cleaning products or toiletries
  • Build up your stores as quickly or slowly as you like


Important things to consider

  • Your budget
  • Upcoming life events: scheduled surgery, new baby, new job, house move
  • Available space
  • Storage conditions

For example, be careful not to overload your cupboards or shelves, and don’t store cans or dried goods in damp cellars.


When not to do it

  • For anything you’re not sure you love
  • For groceries you only use occasionally
  • With perishables or other items with short shelf life
  • If you’re about to move house
  • If you find it encourages unhealthy eating or other changes in behaviour – such as an escalation in snacking from your normal levels or overstocking

Is having an organised store cupboard the same thing as hoarding? I would definitely say no, as long as you don’t ever buy scarce staple items during national or local shortages. In fact, it means you can stay out of the shops and leave things for others if shortages do arise. It’s a safe fortnight of supplies if you run out of your usual groceries, and nothing excessive or wasteful needs to be included. Plus, in an emergency you can share with neighbours if they’ve run out of anything.


Do you try to keep an organised stock of food, cleaning products and toiletries? What are your top five or top ten most used household items each week?


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One Comment

  1. Fascinating Penny! I never knew about the heir and a spare thing, and yes, how incredibly sexist!!!
    Great idea to switch it to the store cupboard, I like the idea a lot and need to start sorting out my own food cupboard, so I’ll be trying this for sure. Thanks!

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