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How To Grocery Shop On A Budget

Posted November 9th, 2011 in Budgeting by Jeremy Waller

One of the hardest things for me has been sticking to a grocery budget. I kinda love to eat. Well, there is no ‘kind of’. Me and food have this thing. Everyone has their vice. Food is mine.

That leads to problems in the grocery budget. I can easily make a “milk run” to the store and end up spending $75.

So this month, I’ve implemented a new set of guidelines to make it easier to stay within our grocery budget. This has sort of worked out as a guide on how to grocery shop on a budget.

Set a Grocery Budget

This is the most basic of the basic. Obviously, you can’t stay within your budget if you don’t have a budget to begin with.

I think groceries are one of the more difficult things to budget for. Most people underestimate what it costs to feed a family. Even the cost to feed one person can be surprising.

The USDA recommends the following:

  • Single Adult: $160 – $350
  • Family of 2: $375 – $470
  • Family of 4: $625 – $1,230

Now this totally depends on your own financial situation, but I think those numbers are a little high. We have our grocery budget set at $400 per month including cleaning items and toiletries.

Now before we really got on the ball, we could easily spend $500 on groceries without thinking about it. So I guess those numbers work if you’re an eyeball shopper – buy whatever catches your eye.

But if you try, it isn’t hard to shave a couple hundred bucks off your grocery bill each month. Grocery shopping on a tight budget just takes a little bit of extra work. But it’s totally doable.

Make Meal Plans Before You Go Grocery Shopping

You need to go to the grocery store with a plan. A grocery list is a good start, but doing meal plans before you make your grocery list is even better.

I noticed we were throwing away way too much food. We were throwing away salad that wilted before we could eat it. I had to throw away lunch meat that went past its expiration date. I’ve found ground beef in our freezer with freezerburn because we forgot it was in there.

It was so wasteful!

We started doing meal plans so that we knew where nearly everything we bought at the store was going. It wasn’t just grabbing a couple of pounds of ground beef because we would probably eat hamburgers or spaghetti and meatballs or tacos in the next week. It was buying 2 pounds of ground beef because we needed 1 pound of lasagna on Monday and 1 pound for hamburgers on Thursday.

Limit Grocery Shopping To Weekly Trips

The next thing we did was schedule a time each week to go to the store.

Part of this has to do with the meal plans. We make meal plans for a week and we only buy for what’s on our meal plan.

The other reason weekly trips help you to stick to the budget is that you can break your budget into weekly chunks. With our $400 budget, we can spend $100 each time we go to the store.

Actually, we shoot to stay under $75 each trip. That gives us a little bit of a buffer in case we do need to make an unscheduled run for something.

Before, we would just get whatever since I knew we wouldn’t spend $400 in one trip. But we might spend $150. Then a couple of days later we would make a quick run for something else and spend $30. And so on. We might end up going to the store 10 times in a month. When you go 10 times, those small trips can really add up.

One side benefit to these weekly trips is the amount of time you save. Our weekly trip may take an hour. But our 3 small trips each week would take 30 minutes a piece. Cutting grocery shopping down to once a week saves at least 2 hours per month.

Do A Cash Based Grocery Budget

The other change we’ve made is to do our grocery budget in cash. At the beginning and the middle of each month we draw out $200 and put it in an envelope.

Every time we go to the store, we take our envelope and pay in cash.

This helps to control spending. It seems like it’s harder to spend money when you have to count the bills out. Swiping a piece of plastic just doesn’t have the same effect.

It also helps you to keep track of how much you have left for the month and serves as a hard spending cutoff. When the cash is gone, it’s gone.

Does This Actually Work?

So far, this is all working fabulously. We’re almost 1/3rd of the way through the month and have only spent about $100.

I don’t feel like I’m missing anything either. We’re not on beans and rice here. We’ve eaten really well. It’s amazing how great you can eat and still stay within a modest budget.

How do you handle your grocery budget? Do you have any special tricks that you use?

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21 Responses so far.

  1. I think we overspend on groceries quite often, we also eat out a lot. However, it is the main thing we do, so we make up for it elsewhere.

    • Jeremy says:

      We also eat out a lot. I’m working on a few things to cut expenses there as well. I’m quite pleased with the progress we’ve made. We’ve gotten about $30 worth of free food so far this month.

  2. Charles says:

    wow, those average numbers do really seem high. I think me and my wife spend about 50% of those numbers. You’re right about budgeting for it though.

  3. Aloysa says:

    We spend a lot! For the family of two we spend about $500 on groceries per month. we try to buy natural, organic and not processed food. I guess at the end it all adds up.

    • Jeremy says:

      You’ll definitely spend more on organic. I would love to see a cost-benefit analysis comparing the additional cost of organic foods to the health benefits over a life-time. I wonder if anyone has ever done a study on that?

  4. Good tips. When we went from on demand shopping to weekend shopping our bills reduced a lot.

  5. Dana says:

    We spend a lot too but we are a family of 6. I try to shop only once per week and really stock up during sales. We don’t really eat out though so our food costs are only what we spend at the grocery store.

  6. Great job lowering your food budget. I’ve implemented many of these strategies and have also found a big difference. We also calculate our meals by cost per serving so as to make sure we aren’t just eating expensive meals every day.

  7. I’ve actually been making it a point to buy a Sunday paper and do a little couponing. That plus planning my lunch and dinner for the week is helping me keep my budget down. The coupons are good for the non perishables and I try to buy fresh fruits and vegetables that I know I will eat before they go bad.

    • Jeremy says:

      I’ve seen people that save all kinds of money using coupons. We tried it for a few weeks, but fell off the bandwagon pretty quickly. It takes a lot of dedication and organization to coupon effectively. But if you can do it, there’s a lot of money to be saved.

  8. Julie Gaudet says:

    Grocery shopping can get away from you if it isn’t planned. Your tip on planning your meals for the week is a great one and has worked for me. Also if I go to the store without a list I pick up things that in some cases I already have at home. Plan and stick to your list 🙂

  9. Jackie says:

    I have one trick that really helps cut down on impulse purchases. I go to to the store maybe once a week to just pick up a few things (in addition to a big shop once a month.) So when I go for those short trips, I don’t get a cart or a basket. Believe me, you won’t buy nearly as much if you have to literally carry it around with you in your hands the whole time you’re shopping.

  10. James says:

    Here’s a tip that has saved me. Don’t go grocery shopping on an empty stomach. I have done it before and you end up buying loads of stuff you wouldn’t normally. And also there is huge temptation to just stuff yourself right there in the store. Seriously, even if you just drink water before you go it will help.

  11. Bonnie says:

    I also never go shopping when I am hungry, I plan my meals ahead and cook everything from scratch. I pay in cash and everthing under budget goes into a special drawer to take advantage of good sales on fruits/veggies/meats. I buy these in large quantities and can them back. I use the “dirty dozen” list to determine where I have to buy organic and where I don’t. I use coupons for paper products

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