Everyone is talking about it: inflation, rising costs of food, shortages… it’s a real thing affecting many of our everyday lives. While ultimately the solutions to the problem are much larger than me, there are some things we can do to minimize the effects.
Enter: the grocery budget. Most of the items in our budget are largely out of our control. But when it comes to groceries, we actually do have some say. With a little creativity, forethought, and good planning, you actually can choose how much you want to spend on groceries each week.
I am by no means a budgeting or nutritional expert. But these things have truly been helpful for me in reigning in my family’s monthly grocery bill, and I would love to share them with you.
Decide on a budget
Before you ever step foot in a grocery store, you need to decide how much you are going to spend. If you have a spouse, significant other, or someone else that is involved with your finances, be sure to sit down and include them in the conversation. Take a look at your budget as a whole, and decide how much you will allot to groceries each month. It may be helpful to look back at previous months’ spending to determine how much you usually spend on groceries. Depending on where and how you shop, decide if your grocery budget will include food items only or other things like toothpaste, toilet paper, dish soap, diapers etc. Some people like to include those things in their grocery budget, while others keep a separate category for that. If you’re not sure, try it out both ways and see what works best for you.
Decide how often you will shop (and stick to it)
Once you’ve landed on a monthly grocery budget amount, you’ll need to decide how often you will go to the store. Will you grocery shop weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly? If you are working with a tighter budget or really trying to stick to a certain amount, I would suggest grocery shopping no more than once weekly. Every time you go to the store it opens up the door for impulse buys.
Weekly shopping makes it really manageable to divide up your budget, pace yourself, and stick to it. Let’s say you have $1000 monthly grocery budget. (This amount is completely arbitrary and I’m using it as an example because it is easy to divide up, not because this is necessarily what you should be spending each month on groceries) If you grocery shop every other week, you have $500 to spend each trip to the store. If you shop weekly and it is a 4 week month, you have $250 to spend each week. If it is a 5 week month, $200 would be your weekly amount. And so on. $1000 for 30 days of eating is more difficult to manage and visualize than $250 for 7 days of meals. It’s also much easier to track.
Now the key to this is sticking to your plan. If you plan to grocery shop every other week, you need to commit to that and not run to the grocery store for every little thing. This is where you are sure to overspend. Which brings me to my next point…
Make a plan (and a list)
I love a good plan. A good list is even better. If you’re going to stick to a grocery budget, you’re going to need both. I always start with a meal plan. During this season in our family, we grocery shop weekly. So I will sit down Sunday evenings and plan out every meal and snack for the coming week. The tighter your grocery budget is, the more detailed your plan should be. If you typically eat the same thing for breakfast every morning, that simplifies things. You won’t need to plan out 7 unique breakfasts, you’ll just need to ensure you have enough ingredients to make your usual breakfast seven times, multiplied by the number of people in your household. Repeating meals is actually a really economical, time-saving, and less wasteful way to meal plan for most people. So if you’re feeling overwhelmed, start with one or two simple meals and plan to repeat them throughout the week. I have a post all about meal planning here if you’re needing some help in that area.
Once you’ve made a meal plan, you’ll need to make a grocery list. Go through all of your planned meals and write down (by category) all of the ingredients you’ll need to purchase. Be sure to compare your list with what you already have on hand in your refrigerator, pantry, and freezer.
Now here’s the key to having a grocery list that actually keeps you within your budget: Once you’ve completed your list, write down the estimated price of each item. Don’t worry if it’s not exact, you’ll hone this in the more you pay attention to it. Total up your expected amount (I like to do this by section) and compare to your budget. If you’re over budget, you’ll need to go back through and see what on your list is non-essential. Doing this ahead of time allows you the space to pivot and change your meal plan if necessary to stay on budget. If you have extra leftover, you can choose to put it towards bulk or stock-up groceries, add that amount to next week’s budget, spend it on a splurge item, etc.
If you’re fairly certain you’ll stay within your budget after pricing out everything on your list, you can skip this step. But I find it to be very helpful, especially when the budget is tight. As you’re shopping, have a calculator handy, or use the calculator on your phone to total up the actual amount of every item you put in your cart. This will give you a really solid idea of where you’re at so that you will know if you are able to go back and stock up on that sale item or go back and buy the treat you were eyeing.
If you are going to stick to a budget, you’re going to have to prioritize. What really matters to you, and what can you do without or buy less expensive versions of? Is it your weekly takeout or high quality meat? Organic produce or packaged snack food? If you’re consistently overspending on your grocery budget, something has got to give, or you’re not going to get anywhere. Decide what your priorities are, and start from there. Add in everything else afterwards. Buy generic on certain items, forego extras/non-essentials, stretch meals, get creative with the rest to make sure those priorities get met first.
Shop the sales, your own shelves, buy bulk and seasonally
Before you start making a meal plan, you should shop your own shelves and check the sales at your grocery store of choice. If you can come up with a meal or two from one of these places, you will save lots in your weekly grocery budget.
I like to look at my pantry, fridge, and freezer stock first. What do I have that needs to be used up soon? What meat do I have in my freezer that I can make into a meal? Do I have any pantry staples that give me an idea for dinner? Looking at what you already have is helpful for staying on budget and giving you ideas if you’re not sure what to make.
Having a well-stocked pantry, fridge, and freezer is crucial for shopping your own shelves, and buying in bulk is one of my favorite ways to do this. If you are already going to be buying an ingredient that you use frequently, consider stocking up or buying it in bulk if your budget allows. The up front cost will be more, but most times you will be saving a considerable amount per unit. Be sure to do the math to be sure it is actually a good deal.
Shopping seasonally is another way to save money, and the quality of food is often much better when bought in season. You may have to get creative and do some preserving of some kind to make it last all season, but I assure you it is well worth your time. In the summer, find a local farm that offers you-pick produce, or enquire about buying in bulk at your farmer’s market. Decide how you will preserve this produce so that none goes to waste, and so you can enjoy the fresh flavors of summer all winter long. If you are able to, buying a whole or half animal for meat is another way to get high quality meat at a fraction of the cost per pound.
It is actually possible to stay within a grocery budget, and I hope this post gave you some new ideas to try out to make it work for you. Be sure to comment below if you have any tips and tricks you would add to this list!