8 tips for keeping your grocery budget in check

I have long been convinced that you can change your financial life by being a better grocery shopper. I know this seems hyperbolic, but I assure you it isn’t. While there is a ton of money to be saved at the grocery, the real “life changing” starts happening when you utilize critical skills that can/will transfer through to the rest of your life. You will find that planning, resourcefulness, and critical thinking will save you hundreds of dollars per month at the grocery store, and possibly change the way you live your financial life.

I have, for quite sometime, spent $62/week at the grocery store. I’m not cheap. I’m not crazy. I’m not a waif fashion model. I just follow these 8 tips. You should too.

  1. Create a menu, then shop with a list- Menu planning is essential to cutting your grocery budget. You should not only know what meals that you plan on having on what days, but you should also plan meals that allow you to re-purpose ingredients and leftovers. Need half an onion today for a recipe? Cool, but just make sure that tomorrow’s meal can incorporate the other half of the onion. Buying fresh herbs (which are brutally expensive – that’s why I have an herb garden)? Don’t use the $3 cilantro once this week, use it two or three times. Although outlets like the Food Network have changed the way we will eat forever, it has also changed the way we waste “specialty” ingredients. Having a menu will also reduce the amount of “convenience dining outs” that you randomly fall subject to mid week. Once you make your menu, then make your list. How do you know what to choose for the menu? Move your eyes to tip #2.
  2. Get the eNewsletter/flyer– Do you know that pork shoulder is on sale this week? Yes, I dig on swine. Get over it. Waiting to see what is on sale at the store can lead to disaster. It can cause you to buy what you had planned on buying AND what is on sale. That defeats the purpose of the sale. Create your menu based on what is on sale. For instance, back to the swine, let’s say that pork shoulder is on sale. You could braise the pork shoulder which then gives you plenty of pork for 2-3 meals. You could have pulled pork BBQ, then carnitas tacos, and even a shredded pork panini. You just have to be creative. By the way, don’t be the weirdo that only buys chicken breasts. Chicken breasts can cost up to $6/lb, while a whole chicken can cost $.79/lb. Buy the whole damn bird and learn to cook.
  3. Bend your knees- Awkward. No, what I mean is stand in front of the ingredient that you want in the grocery aisle, then bend your knees. Off brand (generic) foods are usually located right below name brand foods. You can save 20% by buying store brand canned veggies and other kitchen staples. Many times these foods are manufactured by the same companies as the name brand foods. You should also know that food companies pay a premium for eye-level shelf space in grocery stores. This means that they pass on those costs to you. Bend your knees.
  4. Shop for what’s in season/local- Why do $6 strawberries exist? Because people buy them when they shouldn’t. Fresh foods are generally seasonal. This means that having them shipped in from Uruguay when they are out of season will cost you more money. Base your menu on what is in season. And better yet, base your menu on what is produced locally. If you support fresh local food, then it will always be there to serve your family. If you buy $6 strawberries out of season, then you deserve to not have fresh local food.
  5. Look for your protein sources in alternative forms- Do you remember when Oprah questioned the beef industry, and then got taken to court? Yeah, me too. So, I’m not going to blast livestock producers. I just know that American’s eat waaaaay too much expensive proteins. We eat protein in OUR house, but we mix it up. Sometimes it comes from pork, chicken, fish, nuts, beans, eggs, and occasionally beef. The more that you are in touch with your body, the more you will understand the “energy source” qualities of food. I love to enjoy good food, but I also see the value in having food nourish my body.
  6. Cut out the junk food- Junk food seems addictive at times. Sometimes it’s monetarily cheap. Sometimes it’s monetarily expensive. But you will ALWAYS pay the ultimate price if you are hooked on junk food. By avoiding junk food you will be able to avoid health problems later in life. We just talked about this, people. Live, learn, exist without diabetes. (Do you think that could be their slogan? I doubt it too. But I like it.)
  7. Go alone- I love Mrs. Planner. But every time that she goes to the store with me, our grocery bills climb. I ALWAYS do the grocery shopping, and I generally try to go to the store alone. The more grubby little hands that are with me, the more random food items end up in my cart. On that note, you should also consider going to the same grocery store, at the same time in the week, every week. This will help create a good routine that will help familiarize you with your store’s options and induce you to spend less money.
  8. Identify free meals- We each have 93 meals per month that we have to account for (3 meals per day for 31 days). If you spent $5 per meal, then you would be in trouble. You need to find ways to “eat for free.” Do I mean making ketchup soup from the free ketchup packets at Wendy’s? No. I mean having a “pantry meal” once every month or so. A pantry meal, not to be confused with a panty meal (I don’t know exactly what that would be) is when you don’t buy any specific ingredients for a meal, and just create a “free” meal from ingredients that are deep within your pantry and/or freezer. We do this all the time. It’s actually pretty fun. Whole wheat pasta with artichoke hearts, black olives, and sun-dried tomatoes. Creamy polenta with mushrooms and thyme. The sky is the limit. Be creative, eat well, and eat cheap.

Do you have a favorite grocery tip that you would like to share? I’d love to hear it. I may even steal it for my next book. Besides, these tips all came from my last book 60 Days to Change. Check it out. And by check it out I mean don’t check it out (at a library). Buy it. A brother’s gotta buy groceries.

23 thoughts on “8 tips for keeping your grocery budget in check

  1. I have a VERY hard time committing to a list when I go grocery shopping. I’m not sure why I don’t plan out my meals the way you described (as has my fiancee).

    I’m going to work harder because 1) I think it makes better meals and 2) it can definitely be cheaper than just a grab and go.

    Thanks!

  2. Nice list, and simple, and down to earth. I agree by going along, at the same time everyweek. It really does allow you know get in a routine and usually spend the same amount of time in the store, if you look and see you are in there longer, chances are your cart is way too full and your bill will be much higher.
    And I love shopping in season…it gets you out of lifes mundane routine and changes up the pallet, plus if you hit up the farmers market every week you know where the food is coming from and how it was grown!

    Plus I make a menu every Thursday, and shop Friday afternoon from the list, and if we need an extra meal or supper we, like you, use the “pantry” free meal, with stuff we would never use other wise

  3. Good tips Pete! A friend of mine uses a pre-paid visa card for groceries. She loads it at the beginning of the month with the budgeted amount so there is no chance of going over.

  4. I always go to the ATM to take out cash for my groceries. I have a pretty strict budget and 6 kids to feed. I have found through experience that if I use my debit card for groceries, I’ll go over budget. But if I pay in cash, I ususally have $20-$30 left over. Then I put that money in an envelope to save for a rainy day. From January to August, I saved enough to buy all my kids’ school supplies, shoes and backpacks. I even had enough left over to take all 6 kids, my husband, and myself to the State Fair. And the kids got to pick whatever they wanted to eat at the fair. I won’t get into what hnappened on the rides after dinner! 😉

  5. Great list. I would add to your #2 to check and see if there are any coupons that match up with the sales so that you can save even more money.

  6. The past 390 days have been crazy in our house- main breadwinner out of work. Good news, we now have work. Better news, I shop MUCH more wisely. Just today I bought a loaf of bread at the grocery for .49. Throw it in the freezer- its fine. I also shop the butcher’s special of the day… that’s what we have for dinner. We’ve been much more creative with our meals- I feel like we’ve actually had a better variety and lower food bills. I’m going to continue to shop like a tightwad… it works!

  7. I use all of these tips. Another one I thought I’d share has done quite a lot for my food budget. I carry my phone throughout the store and add up my purchases as I go. If I get to the end and I’m under budget, I let myself splurge on one food item that wasn’t on the list but still keeps me within budget. It encourages me to stay within my budget, and I get a delicious treat (usually a healthy one).

  8. Great tips Pete. My wife and I do all of these things as well and our typical bill is between $50 and $70 depending on what we’re buying for the week. I think the best tip you mentioned was meal planning for the week (and making a few meals with leftovers for lunches). That’s been the single best way we’ve found to keep our grocery budget down to a manageable level.

  9. Well done, Pete! Another important aspect, is cutting down on food waste for what you DO buy. We are huge fans of the FoodSaver vacuum sealer. It allows us to seal almost anything for longer storage, cutting way down on our food waste. We also tend to buy our proteins in bulk and then freeze individual and/or family sized portions, which is saving a few bucks on the front end.

    There is an up-front expense for the appliance, but I think it starts paying dividends immediately, and we’ve been using one for 7-8 years now.

  10. Pete, Does your $62/week include any stops at farmers markets or other ‘local’ stores? I guess I should say, is your $62/week all groceries or just the groceries at your favorite grocery store? Thanks!

  11. While I also have a set budget for groceries, I’m always prepared to borrow from next week’s budget to buy items on sale that I use a lot. Just last week the store I shop at had boneless, skinless chicken breasts at 1.79/lb, that’s half the price of ground beef. I bought 8 packs. That will be 2 packs each week for the next 4 weeks. Sure I went a little over budget last week, but I know I’ll be under budget for the next 3 weeks. There’s also a small section in the meat dept where packages of meat that are nearing their expiration date are marked down, sometimes significantly, I always look there first and will adjust my week’s menu and list depending on what I find. Sometimes there isn’t anything, sometimes there’s nothing I want, but sometimes I can score big there. I just always freeze anything that I’m not going to use right away.

  12. Good tips! Shopping with coupons helps too. Even though I’m sure you’re not a huge proponent of “extreme couponing” there are definitely some advantages (although I wouldn’t consider myself all that extreme). I used to spend upwards of $160/week for my family of 5 in groceries. After learning how to coupon properly, match ads up with coupons, and plan meals with store sales I’ve been able to reduce it to around $80/week. It may not be astronomical savings, but it’s huge for us!

  13. A great way to make meal planning pretty easy is by using the website Kitchen Monki (http://www.kitchenmonki.com/). You can put all your recipes in there (which I know, is a bit time consuming) and then it will automatically populate a grocery list for you based on the meals you want to eat that week…and it also gives the option to remove things from your grocery list that you already have in stock. Then head off to the store and pull the list up on your phone (or you can print it out before you leave).

  14. Our family of four spends about $140 every two weeks, and we’ve done our best to eliminate HFCS and other chemicals from our food supply. A portion of that budget (about $20 per week from early February through July) is used for our home garden: seeds, plants, rails for the raised beds, organic soil to start the compost, etc. We’ve started making our own yogurt (greek style, baby!), mayo, and bread – with no special appliances, mind you. I was given a brand new juicer at the beginning of the year, and we get a lot of use out of that. Next on our list is a food dehydrator, and we’ll see how that goes.

    With a growing 15 year old and a 5 year old, the grocery and dietary needs of our family are pretty diverse. Most weeks, we’re under budget by a buck or two, which gives us some wiggle room on the weeks when we’re over by a buck or two.

    And to be clear, that includes just about everything – from shoes and clothes to food, pull-ups, garden stuff, and anything else we might buy at the super-sized supermarket.

  15. Great tips! Mark you calendars, because that pork loin will be on sale again in about 5 weeks. Super markets make their adds weeks ahead to be able to stock those sales items. So your menu for this week with the sale items will be usefull again in 5-6 weeks. Our household has an 8 week menu that flex with the sale items. You will know whats coming on sale because you have marked your calendar. Some times they put meat on sale but it is not the deep sale price you may have paid 3 weeks ago. By keeping track of the sale price and items you will remember which is the better price. We also use http://www.allrecipes.com because you can find recipes by pantry items. We don’t call it “leftover” night but ‘New” recipie night. Their seems to be a bad stigma to “leftovers” in our house.

  16. Great tips! I always go with a list, coupons & by myself! If my husband goes, the grocery bill would climb for us too!

  17. At my local Kroger, many items get marked down when they are close to expiration or their “best used by” or “best sold by” dates.

    OK, before you think I’m advocating for eating expired food…

    If you have the time to shop fairly often (I shop weekly) instead of less frequently and just plan to eat those items within that shorter window, you can save a lot. Plus if your fridge never looks almost entirely bare, you’ll be less tempted to load up on your infrequent trips to the store, and therefore, less likely to overbuy and waste food. Shorten the cycle of purchase, cook, eat and it helps in a lot of ways!

    1. The Kroger I like to go to marks their bread down to 10 cents, so I have been known to wander the aisles for a few minutes while waiting for the associate to mark the cart of bread down. Knowing when your store marks things down is helpful.

      Also, don’t be afraid to freeze things! Marked down meats and baked goods usually freeze well, and portioned-out leftovers that are frozen can make for an easier meal during a hectic week.

  18. Using coupons gets a bad rap. Extreme Couponing shows don’t help. I learned a few tricks, spend a few hours a month organizing coupons and checking one website, and I easily save $100 or $200 on groceries. Target and CVS give lots of cash back, and it’s not complicated – they literally hand you a gift card. They key to couponing is simply: You “stack” sales, coupons, and cash-back deals. You also “stack” a store coupon with a manufacturer’s coupon. You should never pay for toothpaste, mouthwash, shampoo, contact lens solution, and some other staples – these are quite often free throughout the year when you stack, so you stock up. There are websites that list these “matchups” every week, by store, with links to printable coupons. It takes a month to get organized and set up, but then it’s pretty easy. It also helps you stay focused at the store. This isn’t extreme couponing. It’s simple, common-sense couponing.

    For some people, the time investment isn’t worth it. But for a lot of people, if you can turn your free time into a couple hundred dollars – say, $50 per hour you invested organizing – that’s more than you’re making at work.

  19. I do every single one of these! And add coupons! My receipts “told” me that I saved almost $3,000 in 2016 (with store sales and store/manufacturer coupons). Insanity. I can’t shop alone (kids), but because I meal plan and make a detailed list (in order of the store layout), there’s very little that gets added. Ok, starting to sound crazy, I know 🙂

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