When you have a limited income, it’s so important to stick to a budget so that you can remain in control of your money. And making sure your grocery budget is under control by limiting your food costs to only what you need is a great start for having a realistic food budget.
After all, the answer to the question “How much should you spend on groceries?” is, for most people: “A lot less than now!”
On a similar point, there’s a reason that Dave Ramsey says “A budget is telling your money where to go, instead of wondering where it went”.
So every once in a while, we need to go back and adjust our budgets to allow space for new life changes – “trimming the fat,” so to speak.
And one of the first places looked to for trimming excess money and giving more room to our budgets is the grocery budget.
During our few months of unemployment back in winter of 2017, my family of four (plus five pets) survived off food costs of only $250 for 44 days.
It’s impressive that when times get tough and food money gets smaller, creativity and ingenuity really come into play.
So today, I’m going to share some great info on how to successfully make your grocery budget work for you.
1. Examine your grocery budget
We can’t make a grocery budget work for you if we don’t have one in place, right? So let’s get that out of the way real quick.
First, let’s think about your family and your food needs.
To make a realistic food budget, we have to ask ourselves a few questions:
- How much do you spend on groceries in a normal month (or week)?
- Do you have a lot of food going to waste, unused or expiring before you get to it? If you do, try to trim your grocery budget down by 10% per month until you eliminate food waste.
- With your normal grocery shopping purchases, how much of it is actually food for meals? That is, how much of your food costs go towards breakfast, lunch, and dinner? It should be the VAST majority!
- How much are household items like toilet paper, cleaners, and laundry detergent? These shouldn’t be included in your grocery budget, as they’re not edible. But one-stop shopping centers like Walmart and Costco have us buying them at the same time, so look out for over-spending here!
- Do you have snacks and junk food in the cart adding to your food costs too? If you really need to do your grocery shopping on a tight budget, this is the first place to slow down your spending – leaving you more room for healthier foods.
- Do you shop using cash or card? Research shows an emotional connection between people and physical cash. Shopping with dollar bills instead of plastic can help you to be more money conscious and not overspend.
How much should you spend on groceries?
For a realistic food budget, the recommended size of your grocery budget is around 10-15% of your monthly income. However, every situation is different and this should only be used as a guide.
As an example, things like allergies, food aversions, and living areas make huge differences in your total food costs. For instance, some areas of Alaska have food flown in by plane, while other areas are considered food deserts.
Some of these reasons may lead to your grocery budget having to be over the 10-15% guide.
Just don’t invent reasons that don’t exist to justify your high food costs.
After all, while some of these cutbacks may be hard at first, figuring out how much should you spend on groceries and aligning your grocery budget to that amount could have amazing effects on your overall household budget.
2. Make a grocery list (that actually saves you money)
One of the best things you can do when looking to do your grocery shopping on a tight budget is to only go shopping with a grocery list.
And the best way to make a grocery list that can help you to save money is to write it down.
Memory is a tricky subject, and relying on it to remember the grocery list often ends in forgotten items and more trips to the store to get what was forgotten.
One thing you can do to lower your food costs in this way is to use sale ads you can see either online or in your mailbox.
To clarify, don’t be fooled into thinking that your local supermarket is suddenly being overly generous – in case it’s not obvious, these “deals” are definitely used to entice you into shopping in their store.
At the same time, checking out which items are on sale this week can help you to write down a grocery list that consists of as many discounted products (that you actually need and aren’t just buying because they’re on sale) as possible.
It’s also always cheaper to buy “in season” – more on that below!
3. Look out for loss leaders
A loss leader is an item sold by a store at such a large discount that they either break even on their costs or lose money on the item altogether.
Why would a store use a loss leader?
They are amazing marketing ploys meant to get you in the door. You see a sales ad and a great priced item you like, and chances are that you’ll go out of your way to shop there for said item.
But here’s where it gets you – how many times can you walk into a store for one item, and leave with ONLY that one item?
Chances are, you impulse buy something or do all of your grocery shopping while there. Making the store money and profit. Evil genius right?
So my advice: don’t choose a grocery store based on one or two items priced low, because it may be the more expensive store overall.
Instead, look for which store has the best savings after everything on your list has been added up. It may not look cheaper at first, but a few cents here, and a few there can really make a difference when you’re grocery shopping on a tight budget.
4. Save money on fresh produce and meats (without coupons!)
It’s not as hard as you think to save money on food costs for things like fresh meats and produce. While coupons for these are somewhat rare, there still are plenty of ways to save money on them!
- Rebate apps
- Purchase produce seasonally
- Be open to a wide variety, and not super picky
- Don’t underestimate liquidation stores or markdown prices
- Buy produce locally and from small businesses
- Pick your own fruits
- Join a co-op
- Start your own garden
- Weigh pre-bagged produce that’s sold “by the bag”
- Be open to a wide variety, choosing to swap one meat choice for another when sales determine one to be cheaper. Examples: choosing pork chops instead of steak or ground turkey instead of ground beef
- Don’t underestimate markdown prices; there’s a lot of savings to be found in these places!
- Stretch meat into multiple meals
- Don’t make meat the star of the show – instead, fill dinner plates with two-thirds veggies and let meat be a component to the plate. Get out of the meat+starch+veggie mentality and enjoy cheaper proteins
- Bulk buy: saving up to buy a whole, half, or quarter animal in one purchase from a processor can reduce food costs and give you new experiences with cuts of meat you may not have tried
- Take advantage of after-season sales, such as turkey after Christmas or ham after Easter
- Buy from a butcher shop that processes their own meats – this cuts out SO much cost
5. Take advantage of the secrets of extreme couponers
Secret #1: They know what’s on sale, months in advance
Extreme couponers know that sales cycles circle around and happen seasonally, often preparing them for sales months in advance!
Sales cycles change from month to month and include non-food items as well as seasonal produce.
Coupons appear in cycles as well, and combining the knowledge of sale items and coupons helps to make sure that couponers are getting items for their absolute lowest prices (called “stock-up prices”).
Secret #2: They know how to make money from their grocery trips
By using a combination of manufacturer coupons, store coupons, sales and rebates, a couponer can get items for free or even make money off a transaction.
Money-making transactions happen, although not to the extent of the TV show “Extreme Couponing” – let’s be honest, that show is a fabricated lie.
But some stores, like Walmart, do allow for money back on transactions when a coupon value exceeds the items retail price.
A lot of store policies have changed over the years to no longer allow for money-making transactions, but thanks to store rewards and rebate apps, extreme couponers have found the workarounds needed to maximize their savings.
How do these two secrets pertain to you and your grocery budget?
Honestly, I wanted to share these with you in hopes of inspiring you to save even more money.
Most people see a coupon and think it won’t get them very far with their grocery savings. They lack the ability to fully see and realize the potential impact it can have on their grocery budgets.
Or they feel coupons are a status symbol of the poor when in reality they can be used by anyone.
By educating yourself on coupon usage, store policies and maybe even joining a local Facebook group for couponers in your area (yes they exist!), you can gain some great and insightful knowledge on helping you do your grocery shopping on a tight budget by cutting even more of your food costs.
6. Consider meal planning v reverse meal planning
Meal planning is a great budget saver. It helps you to create the perfect grocery list so that every day has meals accounted for.
This is especially good for helping to reduce food costs from eating out or ordering delivery, as if you stick to the list, you won’t have to buy those things!
But you may not have heard of reverse meal planning as a great way to cut back on your grocery budget.
If you haven’t, check out the pro’s and con’s of each below.
What’s reverse meal planning?
Traditional meal planning is taking a blank calendar and writing down meals, preferably based on sale items.
You then take your meals and make a master grocery list, crossing off items already in your home. If done correctly, you’ll take into account the food you already have in your pantry while making the meal plan.
The biggest pro about traditional meal planning is that you can reduce food costs (and food waste!) as well as impulse shopping because you’re shopping at home first and shopping at a store with a list.
The negative side is that you don’t get to take advantage of markdowns, sales, and other discounted items not mentioned on in-store sale ads.
On the other hand, reverse meal planning is when you start in the grocery store.
You buy items that “go together” and then come home and create a meal plan based on what you bought and what’s already in your pantry or fridge.
The biggest reverse meal planning pro is that you can save money by starting your shopping in the markdown sections of a grocery store, letting you grab extremely discounted items that aren’t mentioned in sale flyers.
Just keep in mind that by shopping this way, you do open yourself up to more impulse shopping, and that can break your grocery budget.
7. Bonus simple meal planning tips
Meal planning is a time-consuming part of making a great grocery budget and can seem like a rather daunting task. That being said, there are still ways that you can make it easier.
So here are a few helpful suggestions to make it work.
Keep a food log of your family’s favorite meals
This gives you a reference point for filling in the week. Not only that, but it can keep your family happy when they see their favorites.
(And you can please picky eaters, which has the added bonus of reducing your stress load!)
Theme the nightly dinners
Trust me on this: when you look at a blank 30-day calendar – your mind goes blank.
You’re afraid to repeat the same meal too many times or to lock yourself into a flavorless rut.
But name each day, and focus only on that theme – you’ll have a much easier time. Every time.
Can you find four new recipes on Pinterest that you wanted to try? Chances are you already have a food recipe board waiting!
What about four breakfasts that your family loves? Pancakes, French toast, omelets, waffles – done.
Themed nights make your job easier and massively reduce the time spent planning.
Plan dinners around your busy schedule
Before planning any meals, always make a note of the family’s activities and schedule.
You don’t want to plan a busy two-hour oven roast on a night where you maybe have a 30-minute window between hustling kids around from one sporting activity to another.
8. Make smart impulse buys
Impulse buys are often thought of as a negative thing. The expert money savers will tell you to reduce this, stop it completely and be done with wasting money.
This is where I don’t agree with them.
Impulse buys can be a great asset to the budget when used correctly. As you shop and become more money conscious, you can start spotting a “good deal” when you see one.
You can’t anticipate everything when you go grocery shopping, as clearance racks change daily and not every store’s sales items are listed in a sales flyer.
Instead, you’ll know that it’s a smart impulse buy when it meets all four of the following pieces of criteria.
And if it doesn’t meet these criteria? Well, it’s highly likely to end up as food waste and a waste of money.
9. Stockpile (even on a small grocery budget!)
Food stockpiles are a great asset to the budget and can really help in times of financial need.
After all, job losses, sickness and reduced work hours can happen to anyone at almost a time.
Being able to live off your pantry and freezer contents for as long as possible can help to reduce your stress as you focus on regaining income or getting government assistance.
One of the simplest ways to build a food stockpile is to make a small pocket in your grocery budget to account for it. It doesn’t have to be much money – $5 to $10 can get you so much further than you think.
When you make your grocery list and plan out your expenses, set aside $10 in your grocery budget to account for this stockpiling.
You can choose to do $10 per trip or $10 per week or month – it’s really up to you.
And then, when you go grocery shopping, you notice that a shelf-stable item is on sale for a great price (like dry noodles, beans, lentils or canned goods), stock up on a few, using the budget you set aside.
After a while, you’ll have a decent sized stockpile of food, ready to go.
Rome wasn’t built overnight and your stockpile won’t be either. However, once it does get to a decent size, it’s important to rotate items to avoid food waste.
First in, first out (FIFO) is a process in which you use the items first brought in, and replace with the newly bought stuff, allowing for a perfect circle of rotation. I recommend basing it solely off of expiration dates though.
Keeping an accurate food log of items in your pantry, freezer, and fridge can really help to avoid food wastes – especially if your log includes keeping note of expiration dates.
10. Look out for food waste
Several times within this article I mention the phrase “food waste.” I realize I may not have explained it well enough, so I’d like to quickly cover it in hopes of clearing up any miscommunication or questions you may have.
Food waste is food that goes to waste. Literally, that simple.
If you buy produce and it goes bad, molds or wilts before being used – it’s food waste.
If the can of black beans you’ve had in your pantry since the year 2000 expired four years ago and is still sitting there unopened – it’s food waste too.
At some point, you overspent, overbought and never corrected the mistake. Leaving the item unused, unloved and unfulfilled.
But what’s even worse is that you spent money on it, which is a waste in itself.
Think of what you could have spent that money on instead.
Food waste is one of the top five reasons why most people’s grocery budget needs adjusting. If you find yourself with too much food waste, you’re food costs are unnecessarily high meaning that there’s definitely room for you to save money.
Summary of how to cut your grocery budget and save on food costs
In summary, to make a good grocery budget, you need to take your family and location into consideration to make sure you have a realistic food budget.
Compare sale prices and don’t fall victim to loss leaders.
Save on food costs by looking for the best prices on fresh produce and making some steps towards reducing your meat expenses.
Look for your local coupon groups and learn money-saving tips and tricks from them.
Find a meal plan method that works for you and take steps towards making it easier and less chore-like.
Make smart choices with your impulse buys and invest a small fraction of your grocery budget into stockpile building.
And avoid food waste, since it’s a waste of money too.
What steps have you taken in your household to reduce your food costs and cut back your grocery budget?
About the author
Nicole is a blogger at StruggleTodayStrengthTomorrow and has been an avid couponer for several years, starting with when her army husband was stationed overseas and continuing for many years after. She loves saving money so much she now runs her own blog about budgeting where she teaches others to save money and pay off debt.