I’ve been experimenting, studying and learning how to lower our grocery budget and it’s working! My monthly budget is at least $200 less than I was spending two years ago, and even with one more kid, our pantry is fuller and we eat healthier.
To keep a lower budget on track, you have to get down to the nitty gritty. I mean making a menu, shopping sales and making the groceries stretch. It’s not as hard as it seems and is even rewarding. Yes, seriously! Let’s get started.
How to budget for groceries
Of course, the first step in keeping costs low is to determine a budget — and then stick to it.
Right now we try to keep our grocery budget around $550 a month for a family of five. This includes a weekly trip to the grocery store with $90 budgeted, and a monthly trip to Costco with $190 budgeted.
Maybe you’re thinking that number is enormously high and I shouldn’t be writing this article. Or maybe you’re thinking I must certainly be malnourishing my family with this limited budget. The spectrum is so great with food budgets from family to family. Online I see some moms spend $200 a month for their families. Amazing! And then I know some moms who spend $900 or more a month on groceries. That’s what works for them.
Our kids are young and our corner of southwest Florida has a high cost of living. (We just took a trip to visit family in Indiana and my eyes were bugging out of my head as I walked around the grocery store. Milk on sale for $1.88?! Ground beef on sale for $1.99?! This just does not happen where we live. Ever.) Still, I hope we’ll continue to meet this budget for awhile. We don’t have an Aldi yet (where I see mamas get some amazing deals!) and I can’t shop around different places with three small kids. For us, it’s just our local grocery store and Costco, and this is the number that keeps us in check yet still affords us some splurges.
If you need help deciding what your food budget should be, Crown Financial suggests 11 percent for a family of four (with an income of $45,000 or greater — 12 percent if under).
Included in my grocery budget are:
- all groceries and snacks
- toilet paper
- paper towels, paper plates, napkins
- cleaning supplies
- dish soap and dishwasher detergent
- laundry detergent
- diapers and wipes
Not included in my grocery budget are:
- eating out
- personal care products (lotion, razors, makeup, hair care, etc.)
The secret to saving at the grocery store
Once you know how much you want to spend, it’s important to make it go as far as it can! That means shopping the sales and learning prices. My goal is to only put sale items in my cart, but it actually ends up being about 80-90 percent.
When I’m making my weekly list, first I check the store’s circular online to see what is on sale. I add things to their online shopping list as I browse and get ideas for what meals I will make. The key is to plan your menu around sales. Letting the sales dictate your menu means eating fruits and veggies that are in season, cooking the cut of meat that’s on sale and getting creative with new combinations that you find at a discount. It also means learning prices.
You can take it slow and simply start paying attention to prices so you can remember, or you can keep a notebook and write them down. It takes some time, but it’s worth it to know what a good sale price really is.
I spend about 45 minutes to an hour a week to make my menu and grocery list. Maybe you’re thinking that’s too long and you don’t have that time to waste. Let me ask you if you’d be willing to do it if I paid you $50? Wait, that sounded a little pyramid-schemey! What I mean is that I believe that shopping the sales combined with creating a menu will save you at least that much a week.
And I don’t really coupon. I might check a site here or there for a printable coupon or save something off a package, but I only use them if it’s for something I am buying anyway.
What to buy at Costco
Now a word about buying in bulk. I have spent a lot of time comparing prices between our grocery store and Costco. Costco wins out a lot, but not on everything. For example, things like condiments, pasta sauce and non-organic meat you’re better off buying on sale at the grocery store.
When shopping in the warehouse, it’s important to remember that:
- Not everything saves money buying in bulk.
Sometimes it’s the same cost at the supermarket and you don’t have to devote your pantry to storage.
- And not everything is worth buying in bulk.
Some things will go bad before you can use it all.
- A list is imperative.
When very few items cost less than $10, a couple extra additions to the cart will blow your budget.
I keep a list of items we regularly buy at Costco and their prices, so I know how much we will spend before we go. I debated whether to include prices here, but went ahead in case it helps someone.
These are what I use as my guide when I’m making my list. Obviously they change over time and vary by area. Keep in mind that these prices are for a larger quantity than you buy in the grocery store. This is what we alternate buying at Costco:
- honey $14
- syrup $11
- strawberry jam $7
- applesauce (2) $7
- organic eggs $7
- coffee $9
- milk $2.59
- organic butter $8
- Greek yogurt (2) $7
- colby jack cheese block $5
- shredded cheese $6.99
- string cheese $10.29
- olive oil $20.19
- vegetable oil
- fresh salmon $23
- organic chicken breasts $22
- organic ground beef $22
- bacon $10
- rotisserie chicken $5
- guacamole $10
- dried fruit $10
- watermelon $4
- organic strawberries $6, $4 sale
- grapes $8
- clementines (5 lbs) $6
- raspberries $4
- cherry tomatoes $5
- organic spinach leaves $5
- organic frozen fruits $10.89
- organic frozen veggies
- frozen fish filets
- English muffins $5.49
- bread (2 loaves) $4.29
- hamburger buns $3.89
- kids vitamins $12 $8 sale
- melatonin $12 $8 sale
- fish oil $9.49
- Huggies wipes $25, $20 sale
- pullups $35, $28 sale
- Kirkland diapers $40, $36 sale — I should have tried these before kid #3!
- paper towels $20, $16 sale — can be cheaper at the grocery if you watch sales
- toilet paper $22, $18 sale — can be cheaper at the grocery if you watch sales
- dish soap $8.99
- dishwasher detergent $12.49
- Eco laundry detergent $13
- Swiffer cloths $15.49, $13.49 sale
Be sure to check Costco sales online too before you make that list! I make a point to wait for the nonperishables to go on sale and then stock up.
How to plan a menu
So now that you know what’s on sale and the potential ingredients for meals, you can plan your menu.
When I first started planning a menu, I just pulled things out of the air — whatever sounded good to us in the moment. I also didn’t take into account our scheduled events during the week. So not only did I miss out on a lot of savings, I wasted food on those nights Marcello wasn’t home with us for dinner.
Now I plan like this:
- Consult the calendar, and write down any upcoming events on the menu.
- Glance in the refrigerator for food to use up. Also check the freezer and pantry for possible ingredients. Might as well use what you have first!
- Look back to the food on sale and pencil in dinners first. I like to reference a dinner idea sheet, my binder of recipes and Pinterest for ideas.
- If you choose to plan breakfast and/or lunch as well, pencil those in.
It helps to buy ingredients that will fit multiple meals. If cream cheese is on sale, it can go on bagels and in enchiladas. Tortillas can be used for the enchiladas and serve as a sandwich wrap. If meatballs are BOGO, they can go in spaghetti and in a meatball sub. See what I mean? More meals with fewer ingredients.
Making a grocery list on a budget
Make your list based on your menu, and try to rough out the cost. Subtract things until you’ve reached your weekly amount. If you’re under, you can use that money to stock up on staples and slowly grow your stockpile.
When you’re getting started sticking to a budget, it helps to make a list of those things you by each week (milk, eggs, bread, bananas …) and the current price at your store until you get familiar with them. Then you can use the prices listed in the circular to calculate your sale items. It’s important to know how much you will be spending before you go.
The trip to the store
Experts agree, you should only make one trip a week to save money. Multiple trips equal more impulse buys and more money.
I like to go by myself to the store, but of course that’s not always possible. When I do take the kids, they are not allowed to add to the cart. If it’s not on the list, we don’t buy it. We’ve never even had any memorable arguments about it because that’s just the way it is. Do not stray from the list.
When I am flying solo, I like to take the time to dissect those tricky 2 for $5 deals or if that BOGO taco dinner kit is worth the money before I stock up.
Grocery shopping tips to save money
- Don’t be loyal to one brand. Shift with the sales. Buy the store brand, especially if it’s on sale.
- Just because it’s on sale doesn’t mean it’s the best deal. Look at the other products and prices even if they’re not discounted to compare.
- Use the price-per-ounce printed on the shelf tag to find the better deal.
- Look on the lower shelves for the best deal, because they put the pricier items at eye level.
- In our grocery store, the spices in the Latino section are about half the price of the ones in the spice aisle.
- You probably don’t have to buy two to get the “two for a dollar” deal. If you need one, just buy one for 50 cents.
- “Surprisingly low price” does not mean sale.
I buy some things organic. Honestly, I go through phases when I’m buying almost everything organic because I’ve read something about pesticides or hormones, and then a couple weeks later I’ll turn around and start buying non-organic because I want to save money. If the price difference is minimal, I buy organic, focusing on the dirty dozen list.
This year’s dirty dozen list
- strawberries, apples, nectarines, peaches, celery, grapes, cherries, spinach, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, cherry tomatoes and cucumbers.
These items (in order) have shown greater measurements of pesticides than other produce.
What to stockpile
Before you roll your eyes at the word stockpile, I am not suggesting that you fill your guest bathroom with White Rain shampoo and SpaghettiOs! No, the idea is not to have excess, it’s to buy the amount you will actually use while it’s on sale. Here’s a breakdown of what I do:
I do not stockpile my refrigerator. If you peek into my refrigerator, you will probably find it half full at the beginning of the week and almost empty toward the end of it. That is because I only buy produce and perishables for the meals on our menu and a few snacks. The goal is for nothing to go to waste.
I like to keep leftovers on one specific shelf so we eat those first and they don’t get shoved to the back and forgotten.
I do stockpile my freezer, but not to the brim. I don’t love a packed freezer. Florida weather is unpredictable with severe thunderstorms and possible tropical storms, especially in the summer. Our power can be kicked off without notice and we risk wasting everything.
I have friends in Indiana who freeze corn, in-season fruit, and even half a cow. They have a couple freezers worth of food stocked up in the garage. I would probably do the same if we had cooler weather most of the year.
But here in the south, I keep a variety of meat and fish, along with frozen fruits and vegetables in the freezer. When I discover a great deal on bread, buns, English muffins or bagels I stock up on those too. I’ve found the best way to thaw bread is to just set it out in room temperature. You probably can’t even tell it had been frozen! Avoid the refrigerator with bread altogether, though, it dries it out.
If I see that something sitting in the fridge isn’t getting used, I’ll throw it in the freezer before it goes bad. I also freeze leftovers that won’t get eaten or half bananas for future smoothies. You’ll also find things like sliced green onions, herbs, spinach, lemon slices and pizzas in my freezer as well.
The place to stock the most is in the pantry with non-perishables. Things such as paper plates, napkins and cups don’t expire. Cans can last up to five years (except tomatoes and citrus, which are good for about a year and a half). Things like spices, dry pasta, cake mix, cereal and peanut butter are good for about a year, unopened, so it gives you plenty of time to use them up.
The idea is to buy all these things on sale at the right times so you never have to pay full price. You can shop your own pantry instead. This saves SO much money.
Grocery sale cycles by month
It makes me nuts to pay full price when I’m stocking my pantry! It’ impossible to know what will go on sale week to week, but you can predict some things by the holiday or season. Here is what you can typically find on sale by month:
- Diet foods: oatmeal, granola bars, diet frozen meals, diet cereals, yogurts, diet sodas and drinks
- Upcoming Super Bowl: chips, crackers, snacks, frozen appetizers, frozen pizzas, soda
- Flu season: vitamins, fish oils, cold remedies, chapstick
- Canned goods: soups, canned vegetables and fruits, canned pie fillings, canned meats and seafood
- Hot breakfast food: oatmeal, waffles, syrup
- Chinese New Year: soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, noodles, canned water chestnuts, Asian cooking oils
- Frozen food: vegetables, meats, meals, waffles, pizza
- Spring cleaning: paper towels, cleaning supplies, cloths, garbage bags, gloves
- Baking supplies: spices, sugar, flour, cake mixes, brownie mixes, marshmallows, chocolate chips, sprinkles, candy
- Cinco de Mayo: salsa, tortilla chips, tortillas, beans, sauce
- Memorial Day: BBQ, condiments, charcoal, salad dressings, chips, aluminum foil, paper plates, utensils
- Summer: BBQ, condiments, charcoal, salad dressings, chips, aluminum foil, paper plates, utensils
- Fourth of July: BBQ, condiments, charcoal, salad dressings, chips, aluminum foil, paper plates, utensils
- Back to school: school supplies, sandwich baggies, cereals, pudding cups, tissues, granola bars, fruit snacks, canned fruit
- diabetes products and baby items
- candy, canned pumpkin, evaporated milk, pasta products, frozen pizzas, pet food
- Thanksgiving: stuffing, soup, broth, canned yams and vegetables, canned pumpkin, cranberry sauce, gravy mixes
- Baking supplies: flour, sugar, baking soda and powder, cake mixes, frosting, evaporated milk, marshmallows, chocolate chips, Jell-O, pudding
- Hot drinks: hot cocoa, coffee, tea
- Christmas: instant potatoes, gravy mixes, soup, broth, pasta sauce, canned vegetables and fruit, broth, gravy mixes
- Baking supplies: flour, sugar, baking soda and powder, cake mixes, muffin mix, evaporated milk, marshmallows, Jell-O, pudding, hot cocoa, disposable containers, plastic wrap
Click image for high-res printable.
To sum up staples and stockpiling, I made this checklist. Of course, I couldn’t fit everything on it, so I tried to cover the basics and leave a few blanks for you to fill in.
If you really want to make sure you never pay full price for pantry items, you can try using the spaces on the left of the chart. Here I put an estimate for how many we will use in a year. So if I think we will use 15 cans of beans, I’ll buy that many when the amount gets around $.50. It works the other way around too. We only use about two bottles of ketchup a year, so it would be a waste if I bought six. You just have to be absolutely sure you like it and will not get sick of it before you buy too many multiples!
It’s important to mention it takes time to build your stockpile. You go with the sales and how much money you have left in your weekly budget to devote to these extra items. I’ll never have a completed stockpile this way, but that’s not really my goal.
Example shopping trips
This week I spent $71 at the grocery store. The sales were not spectacular, so I plan to spend the other $19 during my Costco trip. Everything was on sale except bananas and cream cheese.
On another recent grocery store trip I spent $87 and saved $50. I bought everything on sale except some pastries ($5) for a Bible study and doughnuts ($3) for me! I know, not a “perfect” list to put on this post, but that’s real life, right? I didn’t want to bake anything and doughnuts just sounded good!
Also, as you look at this picture, you might wonder what in the world we ate for dinner. Peanut butter and plain yogurt? Delicious. That’s where stockpiling sales comes in. (I’ve been waiting for peanut butter to go on sale for forever and yogurt was less than the Costco price this week.) In the freezer I have meat and vegetables, and in the pantry I have pasta and sauce. My list was focused on the back to school prices and stocking up for school lunches, so I’m relying on my stockpile to carry us though this week.
Also, I usually only use vinegar and baking soda for my everyday cleaning needs. It saves a lot of money and avoids chemicals, but I need something stronger for our stubborn shower and these were buy one, get one.
My point in showing you this is to demonstrate that your lists might not make sense when you only shop the sales. It might seem like madness, but this is what it looks like to fill your pantry at half price.
P.S. Did you know you can sub plain yogurt for sour cream? It works great in recipes and as a topping. (Said the girl who ate all but two of the doughnuts herself.)
How to make groceries stretch
We are a family of five and we like to have people over. I’d say we have company for dinner at least once every week. My best friend, Ashby, and I have a standing playdate one day a week, which usually turns into dinner. Then a lot of weekends we invite another family over. We frequently have family in town, as well. So that means making food stretch if we want to stay on budget.
Above is an inexpensive dinner Marcello made when we had friends over for dinner a few weeks ago. He got creative and made a zucchini and cheese pasta dish with in-season veggies and pasta that was BOGO. And of course always buy the whole watermelon in season and cut it yourself to save money. (That said, Ashby will tell you that I’m “weird” about watermelons. I hate cutting them, but yes, it’s worth the savings.)
Here are my best tricks to make the food stretch:
- Make your own frozen waffles. They’re healthier, cheaper and taste way better! Here is my recipe for healthy applesauce waffles and how to freeze them. It’s so easy.
- Oatmeal is healthy and filling. I make it with water (instead of milk), add cinnamon and maple syrup, and throw in some frozen blueberries to cool it off. And you can serve it for other meals than just breakfast!
- Ground turkey is sometimes cheaper than ground beef and is arguably a healthier option. To make it go farther in things like tacos or enchiladas, I add black beans, onion and rice. This more than doubles the quantity and tastes more flavorful. We have a Mexican-inspired meal once a week.
- Use more potatoes. The possibilities are endless with a bag of potatoes — diced for breakfast potatoes or chicken pot pie, baked potatoes, mashed, fries, scalloped …
- Rice. I bought a rice maker that makes 20 cups of cooked rice at one time! You can add rice as filler in all kinds of meals, especially Asian and Mexican. I’ve been experimenting with all kinds of recipes with rice — crockpot fajitas, chicken fried rice, casseroles, stir fry …
- We have started eating less meat, but when we do eat it, we usually shred or chop the meat and use it in recipes instead of serving it as the main course. When I find chicken breasts on sale, I season them with Mrs. Dash and cook them on high for four hours in chicken broth. Then I shred it easily with forks and freeze it in baggies. Steak can be cooked and cut into thin pieces for stir fry, fajitas, salads … Make the meat go farther.
- Once a month or so I like to buy a $5 rotisserie chicken from Costco, shred it and freeze in baggies. Then I make my own chicken stock from the bones, which is like getting 6 cans of stock for free — and the flavor is so much fuller than store-bought broth. By the way, stock is made with the bones and broth is not. They can be used interchangeably in recipes. I’ve read that making stock with the bones adds protein and minerals, and helps joints and immune systems. It even said something about the collagen released helping cellulite. Hey! See recipe in this post.
- And don’t forget about breakfast for dinner. Make an inexpensive dinner with eggs, pancakes, hash browns or the like. Try an omelette with chopped leftover veggies.
- We usually only serve the boys milk in the morning, so now they see milk as more of a breakfast drink.
- Make your own iced tea. I like to add peach slices to mine!
- Get in the habit of drinking water instead of juice or soda. And when the kids do have juice, water it down. It makes it go farther and gives them less sugar.
One thing Marcello and I do about every other month is have a pantry week. We buy something like milk, apples and bananas and then only use what is in our pantry and freezer for a whole week. It’s amazing what you can find in there! This forces you to use up what you have and saves a chunk of change. I would still suggest planning out your menu or else you might be tempted to make a run through the drive through.
Ideas for feeding a crowd inexpensively
- baked ziti
- BBQ chicken or pulled pork sandwiches
Cheap, healthy snack ideas
When the kids are home from school I typically give them three meals and two snacks a day. After bringing home our third baby, I was sick of limitless snacks and all the dishes they create. I couldn’t keep up! By trying to limit them to two a day, I discovered I have less dishes, the kids eat more at meals and I am saving money. See this post for more on going from two kids to three.
I even have a sort of schedule so they know what to expect — one snack midmorning and one snack around two or three in the afternoon. They’re somewhat hearty snacks because they are so few. I didn’t plan on being a snack nazi, but here I am.
Buy a popcorn machine. We have this one. It uses air to pop the kernels and I give it to the kids plain. I like olive oil and natural white cheddar powder sprinkled on top, and don’t even get me started on coconut oil with a little sea salt and sugar. I’d eat it every day.
No scary chemicals and the kids love to watch it pop! Making your own popcorn is cheaper and better for you. After the initial investment in the machine, the cost is about $.23 a serving!
When I read that there are mamas who make a whole loaf of PBJs at once and freeze them I about fell off my seat. Yes. This is amazing. I started telling everyone I know. Moms at the park were like I don’t care. But I was like you need to know!
For the past several months, I’ve been freezing whole loaves of PBJs and I’ll never look back. I was freezing them individually in baggies, which works great for school lunches or when you’re on the go, but my Mom asked what would happen if I just stuck them back in the bread bag after I made them. And I did. And it works!
Make your own trail mix. Again, it’s cheaper and healthier. I mix whatever I have on hand. In this case there’s pretzels, popcorn, cheerios, peanuts and I chopped up some cheesy puffs to keep their interest. It’s best if you you put at least four things in it and stick one treat in the mix to get them excited about it.
Another mix I like is nuts, sunflower seeds, dried fruit and some form of chocolate (chocolate chips or M&Ms). But don’t use too many plain Cheerios because they’ll get angry. Trust me.
Another trick I like is taking a divided party dish and just putting random things from the fridge and pantry in it to make a snack everyone can pick at. A block of cheese that’s almost gone, crackers, any fruit that almost used up, lots of little things. You use up all those little leftovers and I guarantee your guests will comment on what a nice spread it is!
If you or the kids have a sweet tooth, try …
- banana with honey drizzled on top
- peanut butter on a spoon and a few chocolate chips on top
- applesauce or smoothie popsicles
* * *
ALL that said — and that was a lot! — sometimes we go over budget. Sometimes my foodie husband wants to buy expensive ingredients. Sometimes I get in a rut and buy convenience food. Things happen, but overall, when we stick to this plan we save money and I am not left wondering what we’ll have for dinner.
What are your grocery shopping secrets? Pretty please share in the comments.
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Grocery and meal planning printables