When I first started reading personal finance blogs and participating in online groups I was astonished at how much money people spent on groceries. I regularly saw posts from couples who were spending upwards of $600 on groceries, plus eating out multiple times a week! They were desperate to get their grocery budgets under control but had no idea where to start.
Grocery budgets are an awesome place to begin your frugal journey because you can change your strategy overnight and see results in as little as a month. While I can’t give you exact directions on what to do since tastes, family sizes, and nutritional needs vary, I can give you my eight basic rules:
- Plan Ahead: I never, and I mean never, go to the store without a list. My planning process might seem a little involved, but putting in extra time up front saves major bucks. I start by dividing my grocery list into two sections. On the bottom of the paper I write out our menu. I write what I will pack the fella for breakfast and lunch, what I will eat for breakfast and lunch every day, and what I will make for dinner throughout the week. After that’s done I work backwards and make my shopping list based on what I need to complete each meal. I take the whole sheet of paper to the store with me; by keeping the page with the meals and the ingredients listed I am reminding myself of why I am getting each item- this allows me to improvise in case of a killer sale or in the case that I need to make a substitution. For example, let’s say that one dinner menu item is “Spinach Lasagna with a side of brussels sprouts”. Now let’s say I’m in the store and the brussels sprouts look bad or they’re overpriced. Well, I know that their purpose is as a vegetable side dish for lasagna, so I can easily think of a substitute based on price, availability, and what will work with the entree.
- Cook Meals Based On How Long Things Will Keep: When I make my shopping list and menu, I don’t actually designate certain meals to certain days- I just list them in no particular order. However, after I come home from shopping I evaluate what I have purchased and decide not what day I will cook each meal, but the order that I will cook them in. I determine the order based on what will go bad first. Vegetables like spinach and tomatoes tend to go bad the quickest, celery and carrots last a medium amount of time, and sweet potatoes and other root vegetables last the longest. It takes trial and error to figure this out, but you will. This is key to saving money, because if you’re looking to cut grocery costs the absolute first thing you need to do is get rid of is waste. Throwing away food is throwing away money.
- Pad The Week With Leftover Days: Part of why I order my meals instead of assigning them to a specific day is because having assigned meals for certain days means you have little to no margin for error in terms of quantity. One meal might be a huge hit,
and get gobbled up in one night- another might make more than you expected, and be only half gone. By padding the week with “leftover days”, you eliminate this potential waste. This means that for a given week, I actually only plan around 3-5 dinners, assuming that we’ll sometimes have leftovers that needs to be used.
- Keep Emergency Meals On Hand: By emergency meals I mean something you can whip up from things you have on hand. It is best if these meals are comprised of things that basically never go bad. It can be
as simple as always having pasta and tomato sauce around, canned soup, or frozen veggie burgers and french fries. This is a money saver for two reasons, for one it gives you an easy option if you aren’t in the mood to cook. The second reason is that if your planned meals don’t stretch as far as you thought, and you don’t have leftovers to spare, you can still get through the week without an unscheduled (aka-over budget) shopping trip.
- Take Advantage Of Shopping Around: This takes time and lots of people don’t want to do it, but it can slash your grocery costs. Once you figure out the best place for each item it becomes intuitive and easy. I recommend beginning this process by keeping a price book. Take your book with you when you shop and write the price of your most purchased items at different stores. This is how I figured out what was worthwhile to purchase in bulk at Costco, and what wasn’t. Toilet paper, kitty litter, tampons, and ketchup, for example, are about a tenth of the price at Costco as they are at our local stores, but toothpaste, frozen broccoli, and paper towels are actually cheaper to buy at our local stores than at Costco. We go to Costco 2-3 times a year, and stock up on staples like olive oil, frozen seafood, and canned goods. I go to local stores once a week, I go to a dedicated produce store (cheaper and better variety), then the butcher, and then the standard grocery store. This allows me to get the best deal and the best product at each place.
- Incorporate vegetarian meals into your weekly rotation: I love meat and seafood, but I prefer quality to quantity. The butcher shop I frequent is more expensive than the grocery store meat, but to me it’s worth it. I make up for this price difference by planning lots of vegetarian meals. The fella was a vegan for nine years, and I was a vegetarian for about the same length of time, so we love veggie food. Including vegetarian meals in your weekly plan gives your diet more variety and is exponentially cheaper than eating a meat based diet all the time. If you do nothing but add two weekly vegetarian nights to your meal plan you will see a decrease in your grocery bill. This, however, only works if you don’t compensate for a lack of meat by adding a ton of dairy or faux meat. Cheese, milk, faux meat, and cream are expensive. Instead opt for whole foods vegan fare, it doesn’t have to be difficult- start with rice and bean burritos, big hearty salads, loaded baked potatoes, veggie curry or stir fry, or even spaghetti and marinara!
- Combine expensive ingredients with inexpensive ingredients: Think about the total cost of your meals, and the cost per-serving, this can help you determine where you’re busting your budget. If you want to make meatballs buy quality ground meat, but add in finely diced vegetables to stretch out the meat; you’ll get more for your money. If your entree involves expensive cheese make sure your side dish is dirt cheap–think roasted carrots or broccoli.
- Don’t purchase convenience meals: This is a huge money saving tip. Bottled sauces, pre-made salad dressings, microwave meals, pre-cut and pre-washed vegetables and the like are all insanely overpriced. If you simply make things yourself you will save a bundle. If you need quick meals for weeknights, consider dedicating one day every two or three months to making freezer meals. Soup is an easy first freezer meal, just make whatever you or your family likes, let it cool, and then portion it in freezer bags. Some friendly advice: date your freezer meals, label them (frozen food can be hard to identify), and freeze them in the quantity that you would eat them- I freeze everything in 2 portion servings, so when the fella and I need a quick meal I pull out a single bag and heat it up! Frozen breakfast burritos, frozen homemade pizza dough, and frozen meatballs are super easy to make too.
So there you have it, a bit long winded and involved- but it works. If it all seems like too much trouble try incorporating just two of my rules into your routine, and see if your bills decrease. Remember, you don’t have to do it all at once.
The other thing to keep in mind is that there is a learning curve with everything and meal planning is no different. At first this may seem like a crazy amount of work and planning, but in time it becomes totally natural. Each week I spend about 30 minutes making my shopping list and menu, and then about 1.5 hours shopping (bear in mind that I live in NYC and have to walk to all the stores, so if you live in a more suburban or rural area this time will probably be lessened). I spend about an hour creating my mega Costco lists, but that’s only three times a year, those trips are typically about 1.5 hours each as well. I’d say that’s time well spent, and money well saved.
If you only spent $200 a month on food how much extra money would you have each month?