I have a love-hate relationship with grocery shopping.
Aside from the mortgage, and maybe debt repayment if you’ve got it, your biggest monthly expense is likely groceries. And unlike your mortgage, your car payment, and most of the rest of your bills, you actually have some control over how much you spend at the grocery store.
Or at least that’s what all of the financial “gurus” usually say.
My ever-climbing grocery bill says something different.
But, I’ve crafted a system to control my grocery spending that doesn’t include coupon clipping and starving myself and my family.
Making A Grocery Budget
Ah, the dreaded B word. You’ll see this come up a lot throughout this site, but let’s not think of it as a bad word. Budgets aren’t always a bad thing with a negative connotation of restriction and sorrow.
I like to think of budgets as guidelines for life.
Before you make a grocery budget, you’ll need to do 2 things:
- Figure out your household budget (for all the things) and,
- Figure out what you normally spend on groceries.
Calculating your household budget means adding up your monthly (or better yet, weekly) income and expenses. The fixed expenses get subtracted first, then your flexible expenses (like groceries), then your wants that are optional. Once you come up with those numbers, decide on how much you can afford to spend on groceries.
Tip: I say weekly is better because about 5 months out of the year give you that dreaded 5th week that tends to throw off your budget. Your monthly gas and groceries now have to be split into 5 instead of 4. Save yourself the surprise and calculate weekly upfront.
Then, calculate what you actually spend on groceries. To figure this out, pull up your bank statements for the last 3 – 4 months. Since grocery spending fluctuates, you’ll need an average of these months. Months that include holidays, birthdays, or anything with a party, might artificially skew that number, so you’ll need a few months for better accuracy.
These numbers might surprise you and this could be the area where you are overspending and didn’t even know it. When I first did this a few years ago, I realized I was spending $700-800/month for a family of 3 and a dog. Yikes. That’s more than double what it should have been. I had always been “budgeting” $450 (max) for groceries, but the numbers were casually being recorded in my head.
Can you relate?
Well, you need to get those numbers out of your head and onto paper. Or into a budgeting tool.
If you are way over budget, try cutting back your budget by $20 per month, but make sure you keep tracking the numbers so you don’t keep going over your budget. Keep dropping it $20 each month until you get to an amount that is manageable.
Decide on Your Go-To Store and Record the Prices
If you’re like me, you shop at a few different stores. Unfortunately, one store does not have it all (wouldn’t that be amazing?) and we sometimes have to truck around town to other locations to get everything we want. If you shop at stores like Aldi or Trader Joe’s, you know what I mean. They have a great selection overall, but if you are looking for a particular yogurt or a certain kind of chip, you’re out of luck.
Here’s the thing. I want you to get over that need to have a certain brand or item (unless it’s truly necessary). For me, one of those items is yogurt. I don’t buy yogurt every week, but when I do, it has to be a certain kind – because I don’t like most of it. Australian-style fruit on the bottom is the only kind I eat, and of course they don’t sell that everywhere. So, for that, I cave and track it down. But for most other items that I stock regularly, I’ve learned to deal with whatever my preferred store has.
Right now, that store for me is Trader Joe’s.
But Miranda, Kroger has cheap milk, Walmart has great pancake mix, Publix has a great deal on eggs, etc.
I know, I know. But eventually the prices even out. Unless you are shopping entirely at Whole Foods. Then you’re on your own.
Once you zero in on your main store, use a shopping list app like Out of Milk to keep a record of the items you purchase regularly. During your shopping trip, enter the prices as you go to keep track of how much you’re spending. If that is too much of a hassle while you shop (it can be overwhelming the first few times), then keep your receipts after your shopping trips and then enter the prices into the app later.
We tend to buy the same things regularly, so after about a month or so, you’ll have a good number of priced items in your app.
This will make it super easy to stay on track with your budget week to week. Having the prices on your phone also keeps you aware of when item prices fluctuate and when a deal is really a good deal.
You may still want to keep an eye on flyers from the other nearby stores. If you notice a loss leader item (sold at a price below market value) on sale at another store with a price too good to pass up, compare it to your regular store to see if it’s worth the trip.
Come Up With A Few Frugal Dishes
You don’t have to make drastic changes and eat nothing but rice and beans all week (cue Dave Ramsey in my head, “rice and beans, beans and rice”). Instead, think of a few inexpensive dishes your family enjoys. That may be chicken and rice, or a big pot of soup or chili. Often meatless dishes will be your best frugal bet, or use meat in small portions on frugal dish days.
I like to call these “filler meals” and there may be some weeks where you are teetering close to your budget but need a couple more nights of food. If you already have the spices, a meatless pot of chili can run you $5 for a couple days of food (depending on how big your family is). Enjoying frugal meals even just a handful of days during the month combined with using up any and all leftovers will make a big difference in your grocery budget.
Need some inspiration? Check out these 100 Frugal Dinner Recipes and 7 Frugal Dinner Ideas all Under $1 a Serving. If you’ve got more time to read and want to add some blogs to your arsenal, check out 10 Frugal Cooking Blogs to Keep You on Budget.
Cut Out The Extras
Lastly, make a list before you head to the store and stick to it.
All those little extras like the fancy bread from the bakery or the candy you grabbed at checkout start to add up.
Trust me, I’ve been there. Not 10 seconds after I walk in the door at Trader Joe’s, I’m greeted with moderately priced fresh flowers and delicious looking pretzel bread. Neither of which are ever on my list, but somehow when I get to the register, my cart has a few more items in it.
Get in the habit of skipping those extras unless there’s a good reason to buy them. Stick to your list and you’ll cut your grocery bill by quite a bit each week. It’s amazing how all those little extras add up.
What are you favorite grocery apps or hacks?