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Sticking to a budget isn’t easy. It comes with pitfalls including emergencies, splurges, and the holidays, among other things. Grocery shopping shouldn’t have to be one of them, but it often ranks among the most frustrating part of keeping a budget. Today I am excited to address some grocery budget survival strategies for stress-free ways to maintain that budget line.
Strategies for Success
This past December we created a budget to assist us in paying down debt. At the time, we were consistently spending $600* (or more) on groceries each month for our family of four. Since beginning this budget, we’ve managed to whittle that down to an average of $425 per month. That’s $175 that we save EVERY month by focusing on the following strategies.
Keep in mind that these aren’t the only strategies you can use, they just happen to be the ones I’ve found most effective for my family.
*Note: this budget may be higher or lower than your budget currently is, but all of these strategies can be helpful to cut back even further.
**I am gluten free (not by choice) and eat a mostly Paleo diet, so when we talk about meal plans and the expense of food, our family purchases mostly high-quality meat (not organic), potatoes, avocados, and other fruits and vegetables on a weekly basis. My daughters pack lunches with crackers, chips, applesauce cups, yogurts, and sandwiches, as well as whole fruit or vegetables depending on what we have around. Justin and I take leftovers – which I’ll talk more about later. Could we save more purchasing ramen noodles and boxed mac and cheese? Probably. Will we? No.
Strategy #1: Split Your Monthly Budget
Determine how often you will shop for groceries and split your budget accordingly. I’ve mentioned before that I separate the grocery (food) budget from our household (detergents, paper products, baggies, and cleaning supplies) budget. I then split the grocery budget by how many meal plans I have for the month. In our case, it’s four, because we make a weekly meal plan. (So far we haven’t had to worry about a five-week month and I anticipate cleaning out the freezer and fridge during that time period, rather than budgeting more money.)
So this is what it looks like in my EveryDollar budget:
It might seem silly to split the money up. I mean, you are going to use it all on food anyways, right?
Perhaps, but here’s what I’ve found. If I know I have $425 dollars at my disposal at the beginning of the month, by the 20th that money will be gone. I can’t be trusted – I’m going to buy unnecessary items, forget to shop around for deals, and that last week of the month will be miserable. EVERY SINGLE TIME.
Can you be trusted? If not, it’s time to split the budget.
Strategy #2: Weekly Meal Planning
If your intention is to save money, meal planning is a must.
Many people make a meal plan for a two-week period of time and some people are even consistent with monthly planning. For me, anything more than a week’s worth of planning leads to failure. I mean, I don’t necessarily want to eat the same things I wanted to eat two weeks ago. Not mention, we shop once a week, so if I plan on having fresh produce all the way until the end of my meal plan, I can’t go any longer than a week.
But honestly, the plan itself is critical. Whether you do it every week, bimonthly, or monthly, without the plan comes failure.
“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!” Benjamin Franklin
Making a meal plan is your chance to get creative with what you eat. I don’t know about you, but there is nothing creative happening when I get home from work on a weeknight and I’m already hungry. If I plan it ahead, though, I will be happy to stick with something new. Check Pinterest (see my board), ask family members, or buy a new cookbook (I’ve come to love this one). Make it fun to eat new things or get out of a rut.
Truthfully, meal planning is my least favorite part. Lately, I’ve been letting my daughters do the planning (with some assistance because we are not having hot dogs for three dinners this week). Actually, I’ve been really impressed with their creativity. They love vegetables and potatoes, so we end up with a lot of those items on our menus. It gives them some life experience in meal planning, and all week long they are excited to see what the other one came up with.
For example, our meal plan this week, complimentary of my oldest, looks like this:
Strategy #3: Contemplate Leftovers
My feelings about leftovers have changed over the years. I grew up in a large family, so if there were leftovers, it was never enough to feed everyone again. Pretty much any leftovers that came out of the fridge, did so after their expiration date. We don’t attempt to eat leftovers as a family, but instead, I take them for lunches (and sometimes Justin does as well). In fact, we’ve started to cook an extra serving or two at each meal for that purpose. It keeps us from buying lunch out, which is a huge saving elsewhere in our budget.
Strategy #4: Feed the Kids Something Different
One of the things we have learned over the years is that the kids don’t have to eat the same thing the adults eat.
I’m anticipating a lot of eyebrow raises, so let me explain.
Justin and I really enjoy a good steak. We could go out to dinner and have steak, but Justin cooks amazing steak (seriously people, it’s awesome), so we choose to have it at home.
The problem with good steak: it can get costly.
We learned early on that the girls don’t have any real desire to eat steak. They will eat it if it’s served to them, but when we found out that they would rather have hot dogs instead, it was not only a cost saver but an easy way to make everyone (and the budget) happy.
Justin also likes to eat cereal for breakfast. Since he gets up two hours before everyone else, we buy boxed cereal (why is cereal so expensive?!) for him to eat. The girls stick to oatmeal. Not only is it cheaper, but they don’t know the difference. On Saturdays or Sundays, when he’s home, he will often share his cereal with them.
I’m not saying to cook something different for each person at every meal. We sure don’t. For expensive meals, though, this is just one of the ways we have found to save money, and keep everyone happy at the same time.
Strategy #5: Make a Grocery List and Check your Cupboards
You’ve got a budget and a meal plan, the next step is making a list. Seems simple, right?
Wrong. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been found standing in the aisle at the grocery store making a phone call home to figure out if we had that one ingredient I remember seeing in the back of a cupboard.
Write it all down on the list and then shop your cupboards, looking for any items you can cross off. The last thing you want to do is come home from the store with three jars of olives when you already had a dozen stored away.
If you shop at the same store all of the time, then you can even organize your list by areas of the store so that you don’t miss anything as you are navigating busy aisles.
Then, don’t forget the list as you head off to the store.
Strategy #6: Coupons and Store Circulars
Many people roll their eyes at the idea of coupon clipping. We’ve seen entire Pinterest pages and television shows dedicated to the idea that clipping coupons can make you rich, and while I know that it can save money, it can become a full-time job, something I don’t have time for.
My mom was an expert coupon clipper. Okay, maybe not an expert, but in my young mind I remember piles of coupons for every shopping trip and standing in aisles for long periods of time waiting for her to determine exactly which product matched up with the coupon she was holding.
I am not my mother, and, as much as I’d like to be in that respect, I’d rather stick to the brands I know and love, despite the price difference. But on a budget, that doesn’t always work.
Technology has made coupon clipping slightly easier. There are lots of apps that can help you make money back or enjoy manufacturers coupons, and many stores also have their own specific apps to load coupons onto your in-store card. I know Safeway, Albertsons, and Fred Meyer all do (and I’m sure there are more), so if you shop at any of those places, I highly recommend checking out the apps before you go.
The key with coupons and in-store deals is that you must stick to your list. Make the list first, and then see if there are any coupons to go along with the products you are purchasing. For example, if olives are on your list and there is a coupon or store ad for fifty cents off of a certain brand, then by all means, get that brand instead and use the coupon. If, however, turkeys are on sale for a fantastic deal, but you have no plan to cook a turkey until next Thanksgiving, don’t buy that turkey just because it’s a good price. The same goes for any “steal of deal” money back offers. If you have to spend money you weren’t originally planning on spending to get money back, then it’s not worth it.
Before you get to the store, check out the store circulars. My sister shops at three different stores each week, based on what’s on sale at each of them, and she saves a ton of money. If you need a lot of chicken, find the best price. If pork looks like it’s going to be less expensive than chicken this week and you can substitute it for meals on your plan, then, by all means, substitute away.
Once again, though, any planning you do ahead of time will make the actual event of grocery shopping less stressful and your budget will thank you.
Strategy #7: No Extras Allowed
You’ve made it to the store and you’ve got your list. Now the hard, but most critical, budgeting task so far: you have to stick to that list. Saving money absolutely requires restraint. You can’t have everything you see.
Stick to that list, and you will be happy you did. Most people don’t miss that “forbidden item” once they’ve left the store. (And if you are trying to stick to a diet or healthy eating plan, this will help you with that as well.)
Strategy #8: One Grocery Run Only
So, you’ve done it – you made your list, you checked your cupboards, and you’ve now unloaded that wealth of groceries from your car. Give yourself a pat on the back, you deserve it!
…And then someone runs out of almond milk two days later.
It’s easy to panic a little and run off to the store in search of more almond milk. I mean, what will daughter #1 do for five more days with no almond milk on her oatmeal?
She will live. I promise you, and next week she will choose to save some of the almond milk for her cereal, rather than drinking the entire half gallon with the babysitter.
Same goes for potato chips and crackers and…you name it. My family is learning very quickly that if we don’t ration the good stuff, then lunches and snacks look a little bleaker until we shop again.
And we will shop again.
Saving money and sticking to a budget doesn’t have to be hard. Both take practice, like any other good thing in life, so don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t happen the first time around.