Grocery on a Budget: Easily Cut Your Bill by Half
We’d been struggling with keeping our grocery on a budget for the past…well, since we started budgeting. So I sat down to make a game plan that I know you can probably use as well. Staying on track with your food budget starts with finding cheaper options and easier ones that you’ll be able to use on even the busiest days.
How much should I spend a week on food?
The amount an individual or family spends on food varies greatly depending upon their specific needs and preferences. A basic guideline to follow comes from the USDA and says that a family of four should spend between $682 to $1361 a month on groceries. You can read more about their estimates for different scenarios here.
Dave Ramsey believes that you should spend 10% to 15% of your take-home pay on food – again, I think it can vary wildly depending upon your situation (such as food allergies, special diets, and if you count toilet paper as a grocery item or not). Ultimately it’s up to you to decide if you can get by on spending less than $100 a week, or $150 a month, on groceries (or whatever your goal is!).
What we can all agree on is that if you’re seriously overspending, it’s time to put your grocery on a budget. Here are my favorite simple ways to avoid getting caught with an empty pantry, a growling stomach, and no time to cook:
Meal Planning on a Budget
The first piece to reigning in your grocery budget is to face meal planning. Without a plan in place, you’re guaranteed to overspend. Use these tips to help you create a grocery list on a budget:
1. Start with easy dinner ideas.
I’ll admit it – I hate trying to figure out dinner ideas for tonight. This is probably our biggest downfall when it comes to our food budget. Having nothing planned means grabbing dinner on the way home – on top of a coffee from the drive-thru, a snack on the go, a quick lunch out on the way to a kid’s activity…it all adds up, and so fast. Starting with easy dinner ideas is the most effective and easy way to stay on budget.
Go with foods that are super easy to prepare. Don’t plan intricate and complicated meals, especially with kids, activities, work, and school. Even if it’s premade frozen family size meal – it’s still cheaper and healthier than fried fast food, right? Throw frozen veg in the microwave as a side, and you’re done!
Wait to go all paleo gluten-free soy-based vegan until after you’ve mastered the art of just getting food on the table that’s not from a fast-food wrapper. One thing at a time, right?
It’s easy to get wrapped up in doing it all 100% right, 100% of the time, right off the bat. I’m classic for that – and also traditional for throwing my hands up and walking away when it doesn’t automatically work the first time I try it.
Give yourself some grace and a pass to take it slow so you can build up skills that get you where you want to be. Then go all crazy with the gluten-free soy planted-based stuff.
2. Make a weekly food plan.
Out of dinner ideas? Have each family member contribute a meal idea (or two). Write them on a whiteboard on the fridge so that you can see your options. Cross each out as you cook them throughout the week, so you know which options are left.
3. Have 3 to 4 “go-to” easy meals you can whip together at any time.
If you’re running out of ideas for dinner, have several “go-to” dirt cheap meals you can throw together at any time. They MUST take zero effort and MUST use things you generally have in stock. Sandwiches, soup, cereal, scrambled eggs, frozen pizza, whatever takes zero meal prep effort for you. These work perfectly as fallback healthy meals for when plans change, or you’re just too exhausted to face having to cook something.
4. Get organized and learn the ins and outs of meal planning.
Consistency is the key to not only having meals planned but saving money as well. Taking the time to learn the ins and outs of meal planning will save extra money, time, and your sanity. I took the Grocery Budget Makeover to discover the best tips and tricks on stopping overspending on groceries. Erin Chase is the creator of $5 Dinners, MyFreezEasy, and Grocery Budget Makeover, so she knows what she’s talking about!
With the Grocery Budget Makeover, you learn many critical ideas about organizing, budgeting, and shopping that most people just don’t have time to research on their own. You’ll learn how to include your family in the process, how to set up your shopping list, how to stockpile, how to best use coupons (only if you want to!), and time-saving kitchen hacks.
After taking this online video course and using the grocery budget worksheets, we shave over $400 from our grocery budget consistently every month! While it wasn’t cutting our grocery bill by 90 percent, it was still a HUGE chunk of savings for us. It’s made a massive difference in our budget and debt payoff. Read more about what we learned from the course here and how we learned to plan dinner on a tight budget.
5. Figure out your weak points.
Do you generally grab a coffee in the morning because you’re running late? Or get snacks at the drive-thru when you’re carting the kids from school to practice? Figure out when your defenses are most likely to be down and work on those points. If it’s coffee because you’re running late, try getting up earlier or getting an automatic coffeemaker that has a timer.
Maybe your weakness is that you love lattes and can’t give them up. Can’t quit coffee shops? Splurge (just a little!) and get the good beans to grind up at home. Get the fancy creamers you like. While it might be a tad more than the cheap stuff, if it tastes good, you’ll be more likely to stick with it. And it’s still cheaper than Starbucks. Now treat yourself (without getting too crazy)!
6. Look for recipes that you can “set and forget.”
After a long day at work, the last thing you want to do is cook, right? We got our crockpot as a wedding gift almost eight years ago, and I love that thing like it’s one of my kids. Seriously. It’s super easy to throw stuff in and let it go. Plus, it’s so easy to clean up as well. I also hear crazy good things about instapots but haven’t tried one yet.
Not to mention, it’s easier to make easy kid-friendly dinner recipes in a crockpot. My kids love shredded chicken with just about anything I throw in there. It’s amazing!
7.Plan meatless meals.
One of the most significant expenses that can bump up your food costs is meat. Try substituting a plant-based protein like soy or beans for ground beef in your favorite meals to save money.
8.Plan to use leftovers for lunch the next day.
Adding leftovers as the next day’s lunch (or dinner once a week) is a great way to avoid any food going to waste. It’s easy for items to get pushed back into the fridge, and you don’t find them for a month. (Surely that’s not just me that happens to, right?)
Next, Build a Grocery List on a Budget
Now that you have meal planning out of the way, you’ll create a list to shop from, which will help you from overspending and buying things you don’t need.
What groceries should I buy on a tight budget?
There are plenty of great healthy food items that you can buy to keep your grocery on a budget. These are great cheap grocery staples you can buy to create your budget grocery list for the family:
- Cheap cuts of meat (like chicken thighs)
- Pasta sauce
- Peanut butter
- Canned fish or chicken
- Fresh produce like carrots, cabbage, cucumbers, onions, potatoes, and peppers
- Frozen or canned vegetables
For even more healthy grocery shopping on a budget, learn more about cheap grocery items here.
1. Create a grocery list of staple items you need to buy every week.
For us, it’s milk, fresh fruits, string cheese, and bagels, among other things. Once you’ve written down your “must buy” items on a sheet of paper, photocopy it. A lot. Then use it as a jumping-off point for your cheap grocery list. See? Your checklist for the week is already half done! When your list is already started, it makes the task seems so much less painful.
2. Cut back on drinks.
Adding bottled water, fruit juices, and alcohol can wreak havoc on your grocery list – and budget. Cut them out by installing a filter on your tap or getting a reusable pitcher that filters tap water.
3. Add low-cost proteins to your list.
Try going meatless by using low-cost proteins, such as nuts, eggs, greek yogurt, lentils, beans, or canned fish or chicken.
4. Add fruits and vegetables to your list that are in season.
By purchasing items that are in season, they’re at their cheapest price point – plus, they just taste a ton better.
Tips to Grocery Shop on a Budget
Now that we have talked about meal planning and creating a grocery list, it’s time to go shopping! Use these tips to keep your grocery on a budget:
1. Pick a day of the week and shop that day EVERY week.
Consistency is key. By keeping the pantry consistently stocked, you’ll be less likely to eat out. Always having snacks, your favorite bagels, and creamer on hand means no excuses to run out for a quick coffee, snack, or meal. You’ve already got it all at home.
2. Add up your expenses while you shop and pay in cash.
By rounding up on your purchases, you’ll have a general idea of what your total is long before you get to the checkout. And by paying in cash, you’re forced to stick within your budget – so no more impulse buys.
3. Shop alone and after you’ve been well fed.
Grocery shopping is hard enough without tiny “helpers” stacking extras into the cart. Add being hangry on top of that, and you can kiss your grocery budget goodbye. At the very least, have a snack beforehand, and try to get out of the house without kids (or spouses) who add to the food bill.
4. Order curbside and pickup to avoid impulsive grocery spending.
An even easier option is to try a curbside service like Walmart’s grocery pickup – no struggling with kids, no temptations, and you already know if you’re within your grocery budget before you even think about checking out.
5. Buy generic or store brand items when you can.
It’s incredible how much cheaper store brand items are, and at times, they taste even better! Everyone has their quirks, so if you prefer generic and another brand name, just factor that into your budget.
6. Pay attention to where and when you shop.
Find out when your store restocks (I hear Wednesday mornings are popular), and shop then. You’re more likely to find marked-down items at this time.
Also, if you have the time (and energy), try shopping at multiple local stores to get the best prices available that week. Some places to check out are discount stores, wholesale clubs (think Costco), and farmers markets (especially at the end of the day.
7. Buy in bulk – but only if it makes sense.
Buying in bulk can save a ton – but not if the items spoil before you can use them. Make sure that it makes sense to purchase large quantities and that you’re not letting any of it go to waste.
8. Skip pre-packaged and chopped fruits and vegetables.
Prepared fresh foods always cost more, and you’re getting less product as well. Buy the entire watermelon instead of a pint of diced melon. While it’s nice not to have to do the work, your budget will pay for it.
9. Maximize your savings.
Maximize your savings by getting items on sale and stacking them with coupons and rebate apps like Ibotta. You can learn more about stacking savings here.
Don’t forget to sign up for a store rewards card, which usually gives you access to store coupons and emails that can help you score a great deal.
10. Don’t buy something just because you have a coupon.
It’s happened to the best of us – a good deal stacked with a coupon is an instant rush of adrenaline, right? But if you don’t need that item, it’s still wasting so much money, no matter if it’s the best deal ever. Just because you have a coupon or it’s on sale doesn’t mean you have to buy it.
Fitting Eating Out into Your Monthly Grocery Budget
Some folks add eating out to their grocery budget, while others file it under the entertainment budget category. Again, it’s up to you if you want to include this or not, but our family does.
No one said you could never eat out again. Just plan it for days when no one is swamped and running around. You’ll all have the chance to appreciate it more! And heck – you might even actually enjoy that time with your family.
As dull as routines are, you’re just more likely to succeed by having one. By shopping weekly, having your staple items figured out, planning easy dinner ideas, and having an overall game plan, you’ll be much less likely to eat out and blow through your food budget. By focusing on these real food budgeting basics and making them routine, we can then move on to the next set of changes, such as the types of food we’re eating and finding time to cook more.
When you decide to eat out for dinner, don’t forget to trim where you can—order water instead of drinks. Skip the appetizer, share an entree, and skip dessert. Go on nights when you know kids can eat for free. Find coupons or discounts. Purchase a gift card for that restaurant at the gas station to earn fuel points. Even better, wait to buy the gift cards until the local grocery store runs a promotion and stock up.
Learn more about how to find the best cheap places to eat to help you save even more.
So whether you’re working on a cheap grocery list for one person, or trying to figure out how to grocery shop on a budget for 3, use these tips and tricks to help you trim your budget and make it work.
What are some shortcuts that you use to make sure you’re saving a lot of money in your food budget the next time you go shopping? Comment below and share your ideas!
A forty-ish web designer/developer by day, a budget & financial fanatic by night. I’m a mom, wife, avid reader, and DIY enthusiast who’s tracking our journey to debt freedom. Read More