Food is one of the largest budget items for just about everyone. When it comes to discretionary purchases, it’s pretty much always the largest. While large families will often complain about spending large amounts on groceries (for good reason), singles or smaller families have to deal with other issues that make budgeting challenging. So, learning how to grocery shop on a budget is important for all individuals and all families.
Before we get into some specific strategies, there are a few “low hanging fruit” things to consider.
The first is the simple question of whether or not you’re even tracking your grocery spend. If you’re not, you need to start. Nothing else really matters until you start tracking this spending category to a pretty good level of detail. Write down the date, store and how much you spent each time you buy groceries.
Next, start paying attention (and maybe writing down) what various items cost. Like we already know, different items cost different amounts and you can provide sustenance for a wide range of cost. Of course, part of eating is the enjoyment factor, so our goals are more than just sustaining life. But, getting a good understanding for what various things cost will be important as you better learn how to grocery shop on a budget.
Next, get used to planning meals and let your grocery spend be dictated by such plans. So many people go into the grocery store without a plan and easily end up spending several hundred dollars. Randomness almost always results in overspending. We’ll talk more later on the best way to make plans, but for now, just get used to making any sort of plan and getting good at sticking to the plan when you’re actually in the store.
Lastly, you’ll need to figure out a few things specific to you and your family. What kinds of foods do your children not mind eating as leftovers? What types of meat do you want to eat regularly? Are you ok with only eating meat once a week, twice a week, etc.?
Now that we’ve discussed some of the basics, let’s get into some strategies that can help you make progress as you learn how to grocery shop on a budget. Our goal is to eat well, eat healthy, and save money. The good news is that this is quite doable. It just takes some organization, discipline and planning. Let’s get into some strategies:
Strategy #1 – Focus on cost per calorie
What’s the purpose of eating? To provide calories of course. While this might be a bit unsophisticated, it’s a useful part of grocery budget planning. The high level goal here is to allocate a larger percentage of our grocery budget towards items that provide a good amount of calories per dollar spent. We might consider this how efficient our grocery spend is. Healthy foods and enjoyment factors, of course, have to be layered into this before we actually put our plans in place, but for now, let’s look at what some grocery items cost per calorie.
The below graphic is from learnhowtosavemoney.com:
While the exact numbers might differ somewhat depending on where you shop and on brand names, the above graphic is a pretty good approximation for cost per calories. The breakdown of the various categories is especially useful for planning purposes. For example, if you commit to a few of the lower cost items from each category as the staples of your grocery shopping, you’ll be in pretty good shape.
For my family, we try to stick to the following:
- Fruit: Bananas and apples. We’ve reduced our berries consumption because the cost per quantity/calories is really poor.
- Vegetables: We’re in good shape with our potatoes and carrots. We tend to do premixed salad bags which are not the cheapest option. We also buy a good amount of broccoli which comes in as a mid-tier option on the graphic.
- Fats and oils: We do peanut butter and olive oil frequently. We love avocados, but these come in at the costly end of this category. However, when you compare avocados to other categories, it’s not terrible. Also, we just planted an avocado tree and are hopeful that this helps our costs long-term!
- Fish, poultry & eggs: We do a lot of chicken breast and eggs. These are very efficient in terms of cost. Often times we will grill a very large batch of chicken and eat it all week.
- Whole grains: Oatmeal and rice are common for us.
- Beans: We do a lot of black beans. At $.07 per 100 calories, this is incredible inexpensive.
- Red meat: We don’t really consider cost per 100 calories when it comes to red meat. Red meat is more of a luxury, although we sometimes buy ground beef in bulk and use it for a variety of items.
- Dairy: Our kids do whole milk, and we try to get yogurt in bulk. We also do quite a bit of cheese to use as snacks and on occasion in meals.
Strategy #2 – Focus on sales & coupons
Another strategy for maximizing your grocery spend is to build your budget around current sales items and coupons. There are a myriad of resources and services available online where you can get notified of sale items and/or coupons. There are a few ways to research this. First, consider your local grocery store and do a google search of something of this sort: “<grocery store name> sales” or “<grocery store name> coupons.” Additionally, a number of blogs or services can provide you with notifications of recent sales at your local stores.
While building a full grocery list around sales can be difficult, your strategy might involve building around some core staples each week, then leveraging sale items for the non-core items and leave yourself flexibility to meal plan around what’s on sale.
Or, alternatively, you might not meal plan around sale items, but leave yourself flexibility in the budget to buy extra items when they’re on sale. For many grocery chains, the “Buy One, Get One” (BOGO) offer. We will often buy many more BOGO items than we plan to eat in the short run, and it helps us reduce costs over time.
Strategy #3 – Utilize multiple stores
While the idea of buying some items at one store and other items at other stores might sound insane especially with our busy lives, it can be done relatively painlessly. Many families leverage Costco or Sam’s for some items, and leave other items (say, fresh produce) to other grocery stores. The idea here is to execute a more structured and organized version of this.
Attempting to hit two or three grocery stores on a weekly basis is not likely a sustainable process. So, our goal here is to organize parts of our grocery list and process into weekly, semi-weekly and monthly components. For instance, what if we hit Sam’s or Costco only once a month and we have a specific set of items we purchase here? The best items for this might be a large bag of rice, bulk pasta, bulk peanut butter and bulk olive oil.
Next, we might have another set of items that we need every few weeks. These items might also be purchased from a place like Costco, but they might also be purchased from a low cost grocery outlet such as Walmart Neighborhood Market, Aldi, etc. These items might be black beans, cheese, eggs, potatoes, etc.
Lastly, we have our weekly items which center mostly around fresh items. For us, we typically buy fresh produce from our grocery store since it tends to be a bit higher quality. This involves things like bananas, apples, chicken breasts, avocados, etc.
Strategy #4 – Utilize a combination of all of the above
In all likelihood, sticking to one of the above strategies when you consider how to grocery shop on a budget isn’t realistic. In real life, with the myriad of variables that impact our lives, a combination of the above strategies is more practical. So, what’s the best way to combine these?
I think taking a simple approach works well. First, as you begin your planning process, get familiar with the cost per calorie table above. Maybe print out the graphic and circle the items that you like to buy in each category. Are there some minor adjustments you can make to move towards the more efficient priced items in each categories?
Next consider mapping out monthly, semi-monthly and weekly categories of items you plan to buy. Consider how to maximize trips to lower cost grocers by analyzing which items you’re ok buying budget versions of and which items you’d like a more premium quality level.
Lastly, estimate what your budget looks like based on the work you’ve done above. How does this compare to your typical spend (you are tracking this, right?). Now, find room in your budget to maximize various sales, BOGO items and more. Dabble in coupons to save a few bucks here and there as well.
Tips for large families
Large families deserve a few extra remarks. Since I have a large family (family of six!), I think I can offer at least some thoughts based on personal experience.
When you have little kids, sometimes it can be difficult for force extreme measures upon them. And that’s ok. Sure if it’s just me, I can eat oatmeal ten times a week, eat chicken breasts five times a week and leave it at that. But that’s not very realistic with little children who frankly don’t really care about your financial goals.
So, how can you still be responsible with your grocery spend despite having many mouths to feed? Here are some tips.
- Be reasonable. Understand that kids are kids. Aim for some simple goals, but don’t go overboard.
- Find ways to offer variety when utilizing leftovers. Cooking large amounts of food and eating leftovers several times afterwards can be a very efficient use of money (and of your time). Kids can push back on leftovers, however. So, find ways to mix it up. If you cook a bunch of chicken, rather than plop down a cooked chicken breast on a plate the next night, try chopping it up and mixing it in a rice bowl with some beans. Or maybe use it with tacos the next night. The more you can make leftovers not feel like leftovers, the better you’ll be!
- Resist the individually packaged snacks and other items. Individual sized packs of snacks, yogurts, etc. are more costly than buying stuff in bulk. If you need individual packaged snacks for school lunches or baseball games, then package them yourself. Buy large amounts of items and bag them yourself as part of a weekly “meal prepping” session.
Bonus tips for how to grocery shop on a budget
- Limit eating meat to once or twice a week. Meat costs more. When buying meat, stick to sales. If you find a good sale, buy a lot and freeze what you don’t need immediately.
- Don’t drink alcohol, or limit it. Alcohol purchases dramatically increase your grocery costs. Oh, by the way, this also applies to eating out. Having a few cocktails at the restaurant can often double the cost of the meal.
- Shop once a week and plan to spend a couple hours meal prepping for the rest of the week. Precooking some of the items like rice and beans and chopping up fruit and vegetables makes eating at home and fully utilizing your groceries you purchased much easier as the week progresses.
- Be willing to splurge on something you really enjoy maybe once a month. Love grilling steaks? Give yourself the freedom to do so maybe once a month. This “cheat” time will help you stick to your plans and budgets the rest of the time.
- Get better at avoiding food waste. It’s amazing how much food we buy and prepare and then waste. This can be especially common for families with children. Children can be fickle eaters. Monitor the eating habits and adjust quantities as necessary.
- If you’re struggling to reduce your grocery spend, consider focusing on one specific group. Focus on cutting back one thing in particular such as meat, coffee or snacks.
- Continually review your progress and make adjustments as needed. After a few months of implementing your process, how is it going? Are you spending less than you used to? What areas could you possibly tweak further? Continue to track and review your progress.
- Utilize grocery pickup and/or delivery options. The latest offerings in this space can do wonders for your budget. If you send a specific list to a grocery store and schedule a pickup, there’s no risk of buying random items! The idea of sticking to your list is accomplished for you! Leverage these services and watch your grocery spend decrease.
- Consider a killer cash back credit card specific to grocery spend. As we explain in our credit card churning guide, the American Express blue card offers 6% cash back on groceries. We use it every single time we buy groceries.
While there are a number of specific, tactical elements you can introduce to your process as you learn to grocery shop on a budget, ultimately the biggest impact will be simply getting organized. Make a reasonable grocery list, stick to it, and regularly review how you’re doing. Having discipline and avoiding random spending will jumpstart this process for you. Once you’ve accomplished that, consider other elements in this article that you find interesting or helpful and add those into your process. There’s no wrong way to do this!