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Grocery shopping on a tight budget can be intimidating. But when you have a goal, like paying off debt, saving for a new home, or jump-starting your retirement, it’s one of the few things you have the most control of.
If you are looking for a quick win in your budget, one of the first places you can start is your grocery budget. And, you don’t need a rice and beans diet to do so.
For transparency, I used to spend over $500 on a family of 4. I lived by, “If I gotta eat, I gotta eat”.
I ignored sales, shopped for the brand name because it’s what I remembered growing up. We always had Kellogg’s Frosted Corn Flakes as opposed to the Malt-O-Meal brand.
About the time I had my second son, I started my debt-free journey. It was then when I realized I was throwing away hundreds of dollars a month from my grocery budget alone.
I started to learn and apply everything I could to bring my grocery budget down further. I was able to get it down to $300 per month for our family of 5 at one point.
Now, our budget sits at $400 per month with a family of 5 which includes 3 growing boys who sometimes eat more than I do.
What Do People Actually Spend on Groceries Each Month?
According to the Labor & Statistics 2017-2018, data shows the average amount that families spent each month below:
- A family of 3 spent $424/month
- A family of 4 spent $513/month
- A family of 5+ spent $573/month
How do you compare?
How Much Should You Spend on Groceries Each Month?
Now that we know what people are actually spending on food, let’s discuss what experts think you should be spending on food. We’ll discuss 3 sources in this article.
First, the USDA publishes a monthly cost of food report for every month based on dietary intakes, guidelines, and MyPyramid recommendations. Then, they use the Consumer Price Index to price food plans.
For example: In April 2020, the thrifty plan for a family of four, with 2 kids aged 2-5 would pay $585.40. If the 2 children were older say 6-11, they would pay $670.70.
This recommendation is based on the assumption that all food and snacks are prepared at home.
Let’s explore another recommendation.
Dave Ramsey, a popular financial expert who founded Financial Peace University and is the author of The Total Money Makeover, recommends that you spend no more than 10-15% of your take home pay on food.
This means that if you bring home $3000 per month, you should be spending no more than $300-$450 per month. Dave doesn’t seem to have a say on whether this changes with children or not.
Lastly, there are tons of generalizations that claim you should aim for spending about $100 per person per month on groceries. So, a family of 5 should spend no more than $500 per month on their grocery bill.
What Do I Think When You Are Grocery Shopping on a Tight Budget?
Well first, I’m no expert so I don’t assume that you’ll trust anything I have to say. I do hope that my experience in lowering my own grocery bill will bring me some credibility to the table. So, what do I think?
Develop a grocery budget that works for your own individualized family. Do your own thing.Simple Money Mom
Here’s why. NONE of the sites I listed account for location, diet restrictions, sports activities, daycare attendance, kids in school vs kids who homeschool, work at home parents vs stay at home parents, all of which can greatly alter the grocery budget.
If I were to have followed the average consumption back when I was spending $500 for my family of 4, I would have thought I don’t need to change much of anything.
I was under the UDSA’s recommendations and fell right in the middle of Dame Ramsey’s percentages. But the reality is that I could have spent even less by learning how to save money on groceries, and I did. And it gave me an extra $200 per month to throw at my debt.
My suggestion: Lower your grocery budget 10% at a time until you reach a number that works for your family.
Now, I’m going to share with you how I did it so that you can grocery shop on a budget too. All of these things I have learned and implemented over the years.
How to Save Money When Grocery Shopping on a Tight Budget
Meal planning is one of the easiest ways you can get started on lowering your grocery budget. Creating the perfect meal plan however, isn’t always easy.
Here is a simplified explanation of what I do when I create my plan. It will suffice you to know that since I budget by paycheck, I also create meal plans by paycheck, or biweekly.
This means that I shop biweekly. The fewer trips to the grocery store, the less temptation I feel to get something I don’t need.
Step 1: Make a list of what you already have. Inventory your freezer, refrigerator, pantry, and cupboards.
Step 2: Make a list of what’s on sale. Creating a meal plan based on what’s on sale will give you the most bang for your buck. If the roast is on sale, like a good sale (not the sale that is the same as normal price sale) then you probably should put roast on the menu.
Step 3: Create your plan and write down your meals based on what you already have AND what’s on sale. Already have spaghetti noodles? Spaghetti sauce is on sale for .99 this week? Guess you’ll be eating spaghetti this week.
Step 4: Create your grocery list based off your 2-week meal plan. In my biweekly plan, I make sure to account for breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks, and snacks.
When you get to the grocery store, you must stay within the list you’ve created, otherwise what’s the point?
Buy in Bulk
Buying in bulk can get you some really good deals that will last, especially when you are grocery shopping on a tight budget. I bought a full box of Tide laundry detergent for $50 a few years ago. It lasted me over a year!
Have you heard of sales cycles? It’s when items go on a GREAT sale about every 6-8 weeks.
Buying in bulk along with sale cycles will allow you to buy enough of a certain item at the lowest price to get you to the next sale.
Here is where buying in bulk can get you in trouble without you realizing it.
Let’s say the cereal is on sale. You normally buy 2 bags every two weeks. But this week, it’s on sale for half the price. You want make your money really stretch so you get 6 of them.
You spend a little more than you normally would but that’s okay because it’s going to last. But is it?
What happens when you just consume more cereal simply because you have it? So instead of eating 2 bags in two weeks, your family ate 6 bags in 2 weeks. You didn’t save anything.
I have had to hide certain items from my family in order to ration the food.
Yes, my kids would eat 3 bags of popcorn in a day because there were still 3 more boxes left in the cupboard. If there was only 1 box in the cupboard, they held off until the next day.
Mentality is everything.
Save on Meats
This is a big one. This is where you can get some big savings. Here are some ways to save money when buying meats:
- Find out when the meat gets marked down. I have noticed “manager’s specials” meats are out on Tuesdays. Don’t be afraid to ask the butcher at the grocery store when the last meats get marked down. Make that the day you get your meats, or make that the day you do your shopping.
- Follow the sales cycle. A sale cycle lasts 6-8 weeks, typically. This means that a particular cut of meat will go on sale for a lower than normal price. It won’t go on sale again for that price in another 6-8 weeks. Pay attention to the cycle. Same goes for chicken, fish, and other meats.
- Try a different cut of meat. Sure the boneless skinless chicken breasts are easier to handle and look at, but I will tell you that I can make a bone-in skin-on drumstick taste as good as a BBQ wing on the Fourth of July. Don’t pass up the lesser meat cuts, your instant pot or slow cooker can tenderize the crap out of any cut.
- Buy bulk meat from local farmers. Now I will admit that I haven’t done this one yet, mostly because I didn’t know how to approach farmers in my town. Secondly, I didn’t have enough space for all the meat. Once we get our own place again, we will definitely invest in a deep freezer, like this one, to take advantage of this option.
- Buy meat online. Savory butcher offers the convenience of wholesale prices when buying in bulk. If you live in a HCOL (high cost of living) area, their prices could be comparable. Their current prices are higher than what I normally spend so it’s not favorable to me, but it wouldn’t hurt to check them out.
- Use rainchecks. A raincheck is a piece of paper that a supermarket gives you when the item is sold out. The paper states that you can get the item at that sale price when the item is back in stock even after the sale is over. The raincheck is usually good for 30 days. This means, that you can get the meat at the same sale price at a later date. To take advantage of this, I ask for a raincheck when the item is sold out. Then I go back when they restock the next morning to purchase the item. I save my raincheck for when I need to purchase more, usually before the 30 days are up.
Coupons have a special place in my heart. I tried out extreme couponing at one point in my debt-free journey. I learned a lot from it and I saved a lot of money, mostly from non-food items on the grocery list like hygiene products, makeup, cleaning items, diapers and wipes, and so forth.
I saved money on actual food items by using coupons sent to me in the mail from the actual store. In addition, I use their digital coupons.
As a loyal customer, the more you shop there, the more they get to know the items you frequently buy. Your coupons become individualized to what you already were going to buy.
If your store offers digital coupons, take advantage of them. I save an average of $2-$15 by using digital and paper coupons.
Create a Price Book
What is a price book? A price book is log of items that you typically buy. It includes the item, size, original price, sale price, stock up price, and rock bottom price.
Having a price book will help you understand if an item is really on sale. When you are barely starting to pay attention to grocery prices, it’s hard to recall how much a gallon of milk costs in your area.
By writing it down and keeping track, you’ll recall that information on the fly, helping you to distinguish between a real sale and a fake sale.
By knowing the price of a typical item you buy, you’ll be able to decide the best time to buy it.
A price book will also help you decide which store the item is the cheapest. If meat is constantly cheaper at Sprouts vs Fry’s, then it could benefit you to make 2 trips.
I didn’t grow up with generic brands, at least I don’t remember it. We always had Kellogg’s cereal, Pepsi or Coke products, ect. I was brainwashed to think that generic tasted nasty, mostly from advertisements and clever marketing.
As I grew older and started my own family, I quickly realized that buying brand name cost more simply because of the name.
Truth is, most generic or store brand items taste the same. I still haven’t convinced my husband to jump on the Big K train or change from Doritos to Kroger but a lot of what I buy is generic or store brand.
Use Cash Back Apps
Using cash back apps can help you earn a little extra cash buying stuff you already bought.
I used to use the app to determine what I bought and there were times I bought stuff for pennies, but it was too much work for me as a mom with 3 kids. It was complicated and I wanted to keep it simple. Now, I use the apps AFTER I bought what I needed.
Fetch Rewards: Their app has over 300 brands and you’ll earn points at any store, even online shopping. You can redeem your points for gift cards, sweepstakes, or charity. Just take a picture of your receipt, the app will do the rest. Plus, you automatically qualify for bonuses the more you upload receipts. Get 2,000 on your first receipt when you join through this link today.
Ibotta: Ibotta has recently expanded and you can now earn cash back by shopping online or in-store for both groceries and other items. The online shopping is similar to Rakuten, you’ll earn your cash back when you shop through their portal. Ibotta also has bonuses and the ability to work as a team to earn more bonuses. You can connect your email, loyalty card, or take a picture of your receipt to get cashback. Try it out today!
Never Shop When Hungry
Have you ever shopped when you were hungry? If not, do not do it! Trust me, I tried. I thought, “Eh, I have pretty good will power”. I was wrong.
When we are hungry, our brain becomes obsessed with food, specifically high-calorie foods. This is due to a hormone called ghrelin, it increases hunger. Not only will you put more food in your basket, but you will also be putting bad food in your basket.
So if you are grocery shopping on a tight budget, save yourself the money and have a snack before you leave the house.
Leave the Kids (and Husband) at Home
I don’t know about you but my kids ALWAYS want something or two or three.
It’s easy to say “no” when you go in for 1 or 2 things but when you grocery shop for an hour, pleasing the kids to keep all of you sane will always result in blowing the grocery budget. Leave the kids home.
In addition, you want to be able to take your time to compare the deals, calculate your budget total while you shop, and perhaps discover new items that are better deals.
You can’t take your time with 3 kids in tow. Leave the kids home.
Now onto your spouse. Perhaps they are not as frugal intentioned as you, like my husband.
He doesn’t care about sales, price per quantity, or anything like that. He just wants to get in and get out.
Time is your friend when grocery shopping for the reasons above. Do yourself a favor and leave your husband at home.
Leftovers, Leftovers, Leftovers!
This is something I personally struggle with. Leftovers.
The only leftovers I will eat are the leftovers from dinner that I take to work to eat again that same night. To me, it feels like seconds instead of leftovers.
I’m sorry, but spaghetti just doesn’t heat up twice very well. The noodles end up soaking the sauce dry, you end up with dry red noodles. So you try to add some water which then dilutes the sauce, so your flavor is out the window and your noodles are mushy. And you definitely won’t be able to twirl them noodles on a fork again, it’s hardly spaghetti anymore.
And chicken? Yeah, dries up. No thanks.
If you don’t have a problem with leftovers, good for you mama! Make those leftover last. But if this is something you struggle with too, let me offer some guidance.
First, don’t cook as much in the first place. I learned to cook enough for 7 meals. One extra so that I could take some to work and another so that my husband could have seconds.
Second, transform the leftovers into something else. Have too much ground beef? Use it for goulash and mask what it was before. See the trick?
Third, when you buy large quantities of meat or chicken, immediately cut them into amounts that you normally use to cook. For example, if you normally use 2 lbs of ground beef for a meal but you bought a 5lb package, separate into 3 freezer bags (2lb, 2lb, and 1lb). This way, you aren’t forced to thaw out a 5lb package of ground beef.
Leftovers can really save you money and while I cannot get on the meal prep train and eat the same meal for 5 days in a row, I can attempt to eat leftovers at least one day a week.
I used to love it when Walmart price matched. Gosh, I was able to get the best prices of all the stores in my area. But now that Walmart has stopped its price-matching, is it worth it to drive to several different stores to get the best price?
I now just shop at 2 stores; Fry’s and Sprouts. I will occasionally grocery shop at Walmart but it’s rare. I find that I save more money with loyalty rewards at Fry’s.
When Sprouts beats Fry’s sales in the produce and meat department, I will make 2 trips. At 10 miles apart, I won’t make a drive to save $2, but I will make a drive to save $15. It’s always good to compare prices when you are grocery shopping on a tight budget.
Are there items that you ALWAYS purchase? Can you get it on Amazon? Amazon has this cool feature of subscribe and save. Basically, you purchase an item to be delivered on your schedule and Amazon rewards you with a discount. You never have to walk in to a store.
Some of the things that can offer a decent savings are diapers, wipes, and baby food. Amazon rewards you with a 20% when you join Amazon Family.
Are you interested in learning more about Amazon Family? Try out their 30-day free trial offer to see what it’s all about.
Use Grocery Pick-up/Delivery
Sometimes, it’s just too dang tempting to get just one more thing while browsing the grocery aisles. That one thing magically turns into $50 over budget at the grocery checkout lane.
And nobody wants to be that mom putting things back, right?
Grocery pickup and delivery is the new way to go grocery shopping. You get to see the prices, you get to compare prices, you get to see your total as you shop, and you get to bypass the temptation of buying things you don’t need.
Sure you can get carried away by just clicking “add to cart” at everything you think you might need, but as soon as you see your total in the cart it’s much easier to put things back to stay within budget.
You do run the risk of other people picking your produce but some stores allow you to add a comment for preference.
For example, I like my bananas slightly green and my tomatoes firm. I always put this information in the comments.
If an item is out of stock, I get to choose whether or not I want a substitute item or just cancel that item. It really is a very cool way to save money on groceries.
Grocery delivery, specifically Instacart, is another option.
About a year ago, I used Instacart to purchase some groceries for dinner, along with a few other items. I signed up for their free trial of the Instacart Express which waived the delivery fee. In addition, I had a coupon on my first order for $10 off. I saved about $20 on that order.
My first experience was great. But the fees after the trial period was over did not justify my continued use.
However, my positive experience keeps me as a customer when I need groceries fast and cannot leave my house ( i.e. when I’m sick and/or the kids are sick). It has saved me in those cases.
And for that reason, I recommend you to try it out. Use this link for $10 off your first order and free delivery when you join Instacart!
Learn to Freeze
Did you know that you can freeze bread? Milk? Nuts, butter, cheese?
You can also freeze make ahead meals. Not only will this save you time on those busy school nights, but will also save you money because you planned ahead of time.
Make a list of which items you can freeze and the next time you think about buying in bulk but shy away because you won’t eat it in time before it goes bad, freeze it.
Keep It Simple
This should probably be first on the list but you don’t need a 4 course meal complete with dessert every night. You don’t even need a side dish every night.
Make a list of simple and easy meals like chicken salad, salmon and rice, or caldo de queso for dinner. For lunch, try boiled eggs, peanut butter sandwiches, or quesadillas. For breakfast, try pancakes or waffles, eggs and ham, or beagles.
Keep your own version of simple recipes in your back pocket so that you can whip up a quick, easy, and frugal meal most days of the week.
Yes, it can be fun to play Gordon Ramsey once in a while but when you are grocery shopping on a tight budget, it’s best to keep it simple.