Yesterday I got a call from one of my friends asking me for some advice on lowering her grocery budget. She and her husband have a pretty good handle on budgeting, and they have a nice sized amount to allot to the grocery fund each month, she does some couponing and meal planning, yet they find themselves still going over-budget every month. Sound like a familiar scenario to anyone else?
Well, I am by no means an expert in budgeting or anything, but I do have experience. Going over-budget and beating your head against a wall trying to figure out how to fix the problem? Been there done that! And the key to ending this crazy cycle, I finally decided, is all in how you set up your budget and the guidelines you set forth for yourself regarding your budget. So… how do you set up a grocery budget that is primed for success?
Split Up Those Categories
There is one thing I have found in common among all the people who ask me for advice about getting their grocery budget under control, and that is that they lump a whole bunch of categories into this one budget. Yes, you do generally buy your toiletries and things at the grocery store while grocery shopping. Yes, when you eat out it is food that is replacing what you would have bought at the grocery store. But these things really and truly are their own separate animals.
To start getting a handle on where and how you are spending your money, I would strongly suggest you consider making a separate budget for toiletry/paper products/cleaning supplies and eating out. Even if nothing else happens, you will at least be able to see more clearly what is causing you to go over budget each month. The solutions to lowering a grocery bill and to lowering the eating out bill are two different things, so you should treat them as two different categories!
Budget Within Your Budget
After a few months of budgeting, I have a general sense of how much money I need to spend each week on various categories of groceries. Like, I know I usually need about $10 a week to spend on organic milk, cheese, and eggs. I spend about $5 a week on snacks. I spend $15-$20 on fresh produce. I keep all of these numbers in mind as I am shopping, and try to stay within my “budget” for each category.
This approach would also work if you are not willing to separate the toiletry budget from the grocery budget. At least make a target number in your mind, and aim for that range while you shop for diapers, toothpaste, saran wrap, etc.
Plan Ahead, But Not Too Far Ahead
They (whoever “they” are) always say that meal planning is a great way to start reducing your grocery budget. And “they” are right. It does eliminate some of the last minute shopping that results in over-spending. However, you are not really going to save any money if you make a meal plan but still pay full price for all of the ingredients you need.
In order to make meal planning most successful, it is most helpful if you do this a week at a time, planning each week’s meals based around what is on sale that week. Of course, if you end up buying a bag of carrots for use in meals one week and you don’t use them all up, you now have some carrots that you can work into your plan for the next week that you don’t have to buy!
Plan More Than Just Your Meals
When you are making your meal plan, don’t just think about dinner. Think about breakfast and lunch. Think about snacks. Take a look at the eating rhythm of your family and plan accordingly! I know that Mike will have a snack after work and a snack late at night while he is doing his freelance work. So every week I make sure that I have a few snacks he can choose from. I portion out serving sizes of chips and crackers to prevent mindless over-eating. I buy him jumbo bags of popcorn kernals to make stove-top popcorn. And I tell him what he has available to eat, and how long it’s going to be before I will buy any more snacks at the grocery store!
Commit to Limiting Your Shopping Trips
Mike and I spent our entire grocery budget two weeks in to this month. Guess what? We aren’t going back to the grocery store this month! We’ve done this before, and while we might have to get creative, it has always worked out just fine. Believe me, you won’t die if you can’t have exactly what you want to eat for a week or two. And you probably have a whole lot more in your pantry and fridge than you thought you had.
Think Outside the Box
Experiment with recipes based on what you have or whats on sale. Learn to make things from scratch, including snacks!
Look online for alternatives to conventional cleaning or kitchen products. For instance, we will use our reusable shopping bags for lunch sacks instead of buying paper lunch bags. We use tupperware instead of sandwich baggies. We make our own disinfectants using basic kitchen ingredients.
How About You?
Do you have any advice for how to stay inside the grocery budget each month? Leave a comment!