Grocery Budgeting Is the Bane of My Existence

Grocery Budgeting Is the Bane of My Existence

When it comes to shopping at the grocery store, beginning-of- the-month Ashley and end-of- the-month Ashley are two very different people. Beginning-of- the-month Ashley thinks she’s the Queen of England. Imported Italian prosciutto for $18/lb? Sure! Aged Parmigiano Reggiano for $25/lb? Okay! Out of season strawberries for $82/oz? Treat yo’ self!

End-of- the-month Ashley is a whole different story. I feel like I’m in Les Miserables, shuffling from aisle to aisle to get the bare minimum staples while looking longingly at the European cheese stand. Poached eggs on toast and mac ‘n cheese have tided us over many times the week before a new month begins.

Keeping a grocery budget is tough. Food tends to be our biggest expense after our mortgage payment, and it’s a variable expense at that. Some months we eat out a little more often to help celebrate a holiday or anniversary; other months we don’t. Sometimes we host several families for dinner; other months we hibernate and binge-watch Netflix, introvert-style. Regardless, we try to maintain the same dollar amount for our food budget every month, about $500.

Usually by the end of a month, we’ve really depleted the contents of our fridge and pantry, so I tend to replenish a lot of our staples while I stock up on the week’s normal menu supplies — and maybe a pint or two of Haagen Dazs chocolate peanut butter ice cream, so sue me. This brings us to a total a little over what we’d normally spend in a week, which already puts me behind where I should be. Then the next week, I plan our menu and buy the ingredients, adding it to our budgeting app as I check out and cringing a little at how far behind I am and it’s only the 7th of the month. This pattern continues until we’re out of dinero and eating ketchup soup. (Okay, not really, but it feels that way.)

While I’m clearly not perfect, I do work my hardest to stay within our food budget each month. What’s great about budgeting is even if I have to go over a little bit, I’m still very close to our goal. This is the most important aspect of budgeting for TJ and me. Yes, we may have slip-ups here and there, but we’re working toward the same vision and tracking everything as we go. I may need to spend an extra $50, sure, but we know that won’t make or break us each month. And we’ve also found that by tracking everything we spend in other categories, we can save a little in one area to help pay for extra expenses in another. Maybe one month we don’t need to buy diapers, so money that would have paid for that will help extend our food budget.

When we haven’t even attempted to keep track of our food budget, it’s gotten out of control quickly. I could easily spend double our budgeted amount on food without even flinching. I love high-quality ingredients and could eat grass-fed kobe beef and white truffles every day of the week. So the fact that we have a set amount and are trying our best to stay within it helps reign in my Kardashian-style spending tendencies.

Some of the pro-tips that I’ve found help me succeed in spending less at the grocery store are as follows:

  • Planning a menu and sticking with it. I usually buy one bulk amount of meat for the week from Costco, slow cook it or roast it all in one day, and add it to our meals for the rest of the week. Slow-roasted pork shoulder can turn into Café Rio-style salads, BBQ sandwiches, or tacos really easily.
  • Leftovers aren’t just for grandma’s house. We eat leftovers at least three times a week, and TJ hasn’t complained yet (to my face).
  • Going to the store less often = spending less money. It’s funny, when I walk into Target looking for bananas I come out with ten new pillows and an avocado hair mask…and no bananas. I try to keep my shopping trips to once a week for this reason.
  • I try not to spend more than $300 by the middle of the month. That way, I can breathe a little easier knowing I’m not going to have to pull a Jean Valjean on the 31st.

We’ve also gotten used to not eating out very often, maybe once per week. And even then, we share a meal (except for fries – GET YOUR OWN). This was a really, really difficult adjustment for me. I love eating out almost as much as I love Gilmore Girls. But eating out is the fastest way to rack up spending in our food budget, so we save it for special occasions. And I’ll begrudgingly admit it’s better for our health when we eat homemade meals. One day when we’re millionaires, I’ll have a private chef and buy all the expensive food my heart desires, but for now, we’ll make it work for the sake of our budget.

What are some ways you’ve survived grocery budgeting?

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  • Reply Jessie | Kitschen Cat August 10, 2016 at 9:40 am

    “Out of season strawberries for $82/oz? Treat yo’ self!”. Hahaha that’s great.
    To stick to our monthly budget I meal plan at the beginning of each week, we eat our dinner leftovers for lunches, and then breakfast is usually very simple (eggs or oatmeal). I also try to leave a little wiggle room in the budget for times when we decide to have friends over and I need to make a special trip to the store in order to host them well!

    • Reply Ashley August 10, 2016 at 6:29 pm

      Wiggle room is super important! I mean, does sticking to a food budget have to be so exclusive it means we can’t have friends over? Otherwise, a night out or a dinner party with friends every now and then won’t kill us. 🙂 And we keep breakfast and lunch simple, too. My kids are too little to know the difference! Maybe one day I’ll do those Pinterest-worthy pinwheel dragon wraps for my boys, but for now, PB&J and lunchables work great.

  • Reply Anne August 10, 2016 at 10:12 am

    Groceries always is the hard thing for me too… The worst is when you buy the food and it doesn’t get eaten and spoils. I budget my food per week, each month I try to Superman cutting out $10/week but it only sometimes works. The per week food budget helps me not have the highs of eating out/ well at the beginning and pbj at the end of the month.

    • Reply Ashley August 10, 2016 at 2:04 pm

      I so feel you on the spoiled food frustration! I may as well place money directly into the toilet. I love the idea of a weekly food budget, though. I have a feeling it would help ease my food budget anxiety if I knew I got a “reset” each week. 🙂

  • Reply Jennifer August 10, 2016 at 10:20 am

    What makes it easier for me, and I hate to budget, is only buying what’s on sale that week. I make a menu plan based on what I have on hand and what’s marked down at the store. I try to buy extra meat and fish to put in the freezer when they go on a deep markdown so I’m not entirely relying on what’s on sale each week, if that makes sense.

    • Reply Ashley August 10, 2016 at 2:07 pm

      Sales are definitely awesome! I like the idea of deep freezing the meats that are on sale, since that’s usually a big expense for us. Have you ever tried to price match at Walmart? I’ve found they’ll match low prices other stores are offering even if I don’t have the actual ad on me. Not that I’m trying to be shady about it or anything… 🙂

  • Reply Rachel August 10, 2016 at 12:30 pm

    Oh Man! I hate food shopping! We are always in the supermarket for ages and must spend half our supermarket bill on non food items; books, blurays, plants, birthday cards… by the time we get to the food part we are both beyond caring and just throw things in the trolley. However, the bit we are good at is we have a maximum price for the things that could be regular purchases but are actually not essential (diet coke, chocolate, prosciutto!) and only buy when they are on offer below that.

    We also find that having no loyalty but all the loyalty cards that any supermarket we haven’t used in a while will start sending out money off vouchers. Therefore we rotate through them.

    • Reply Ashley August 10, 2016 at 2:11 pm

      I love all these ideas! Especially the part where I get to still buy Diet Coke and prosciutto, as long as they’re at the right price. Except in an emergency scenario, like screaming children and exorcism-style tantrums. That is a must-caffeinate situation, sale or no sale. And loyalty cards are a must! Thanks for your input 🙂

  • Reply Jessica August 10, 2016 at 2:04 pm

    Ashley you are speaking my language this week!!! I’m close to going over our food budget this week and we still have to eat next week. Oops. This is what happens when you grocery shop hungry! lol Normally I am a lot better and when I keep myself disciplined it can work. Also, I LOVE shopping at Costco. Bulk meat has my heart lol (that is a really weird thing to type out lol).

    1) Costco (like you said) I like their turkey burgers, frozen chicken breasts, fish, salmon patties and this week we tried their fresh chicken thighs. I don’t buy everything at once. Usually just two or three things of it so we have variety. A ton of meat? Yes? Will it last my husband and I for a ton of meals and quite possibly most of the month? Also yes. I try to make a Costco run once or twice a month. I also really love their fresh produce but I have to be careful or I’ll spend a lot of money on fresh veggies and fruit and then it goes bad because I get lazy and don’t want to cook it in time. Which brings me to my next point:

    2) Dollar bags of frozen veggies. We have Kroger’s here in Houston (also known as Turkey Hill and Fred Meyers in other places I believe) and they do this WONDERFUL thing where they have really delicious bags of a wide assortment of vegetables for only a dollar a piece. I love stocking up on them. Frozen vegetables can be just as good as fresh and they last a heck of a lot longer. $5 work of veggies is 5 bags that can last for several meals (depending on how much you eat vegetables). Dollar veggies/cheap frozen veggies are your friend (Costco also sells them in bulk too). Still good quality but a heck of a lot cheaper than fresh vegetables.

    3) Sweet potatoes and rice. Sweet potatoes and rice are both fairly inexpensive, healthy foods that really help fill up hungry people! I cannot recommend them enough. They’re cheap and easy to buy a lot of at once, they both have a pretty good shelf life and can be eaten in a lot of different ways.

    4) Limit the “fancy” purchases each shopping trip. My husband and I have recently started to really overhaul our diet. For me personally that means moving more towards a Paleo/clean eating diet. (I still eat rice and some other grains but I try to minimize them. Its what works for me, not saying other people should do it if they’re not interested.) There’s all sorts of really cool (read: expensive) ingredients that I would love to try but all those foods add up really quickly and I don’t always use them enough to justify buying them every week. So I will pick one or two (or however many I can reasonably afford) a week/shopping trip and purchase those. This week I want fancy avocado oil mayonnaise? Ok, well then that’s my “splurge” item and the rest should be affordable items that we need and will eat on a regular basis.

    5) Stick to the list. We get paid bi weekly. Our food budget is $200 for two weeks. So I set out to only spend $100 a week. I try to stick to two grocery trips a pay period, usually on the weekend, so basically one trip a week. I take stock of everything we have and we make a list of items we would like. I try to stick very very closely to my list (this is where I get into trouble if I don’t lol like this past week). I love grocery shopping. Love it. I get it from my dad. We love to cook and try new things. In the interest of budgeting though, I try to stick to the items on my list and my budget. By only getting the items I need and not just wandering the aisles aimlessly I can not only get out of the store faster but save a lot of money and stick to my budget.

    6) Make a meal template. Ok so this one is not as fun and may not appeal to a lot of people. One way we save money is we eat very similar meals. Like a protein, a starch (potatoes, rice, quinoa etc) and veggies. This doesn’t mean we don’t make other foods or recipes. We do make other foods because this gets really boring really quick (and because tacos) but it does help us stay healthy and keep costs down (especially week two before payday). Rather than try and come up with something new and exciting every night of the week (which may require specific ingredients I need to purchase) I may try one or two new recipes and then just make delicious variations of our meal template. It’s not like we eat the same flavored food four nights a week. When we get bored of it we try new things. It really does help simplify grocery shopping and budgeting.

    7) Eat everything in the fridge. Find a way and turn it into a stir fry, a scramble, whatever, eat it all. If you only have two mushrooms left over, put them in your eggs. If you have three carrots find something to put carrots in. By using up all the foods it not only eliminates food waste but every little bit stretches your meal and your dollar a little more.

    Lol I promise I did NOT mean for this to turn into a super long rant! I thought I only had 3 short points which turned into 7 long ones lol. I guess I had more to say than I thought 🙂

    • Reply Ashley August 10, 2016 at 7:43 pm

      These are such great tips! I’m sure everyone, myself included, will benefit from your wisdom. I especially like the meal template idea! It’s hard to know how to serve balanced meals without spending a fortune. Thanks for the great ideas!

  • Reply San August 10, 2016 at 4:43 pm

    I try not to compare our food budget (for 2 adults) to what other people are spending, but it’s tough to set your own bar when you know that you’re spending so much more than others (seemingly).

    Your $500 budget is groceries only, or do you include the eating out in that? (I hope not. That seems impossible.)

    • Reply Ashley August 10, 2016 at 7:46 pm

      I know, I have a hard time doing the comparing game too. To some people, our budget seems huge. To others, it’s nothing! I just have found it’s the right number for us in our situation right now. We do include any takeout or eating out to this number (😩) but we also have been known to use our entertainment budget for eating out also. So we’ll sometimes dip into that if we’re having a more spendy month. Like I said, not eating out as often was (and still is) one of the hardest adjustments for me!

  • Reply Aili August 10, 2016 at 7:03 pm

    We only shop every other week for groceries… helps to keep us to the $75 weekly budget ($150 a trip) I like to stay to for our family of 2 adults and 1 small human. 😀 Very close to impossible in the Boston metro area where we live, but we do it!

    • Reply Ashley August 10, 2016 at 7:52 pm

      Wow, sticking to a $300/month food budget in Boston?! You officially have my utmost respect!! We lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for a couple years after we got married and it was just a nightmare to stay in a grocery budget. Sounds like you’re killing it, though!

  • Reply Alyssa Trobacher August 11, 2016 at 12:06 am

    Wow, it’s hard to hear numbers like $300, or $500 a month and not feel like a total failure. I have a hard time sticking to an $800/month budget (which includes things like toothpaste and cleaners). I should point out that it’s only my husband and I and our nearly 16-month old. We eat a pretty clean diet (mostly fruit and veggies, beans, whole grains and a bit of meat). I would love to shop around more, but we live in such a small remote town in northern canada that we only have one real grocery store (and it’s a small one compared with grocery stores further south), so I can shop the sales, but that is it. We eat out only when we leave town(every 2-3 months). Living in such a remote place our food means a lot to us, it’s my entertainment! So some months I go wild and buy anything and everything and cook to my hearts content, and other months I cringe and try to get by on as little as possible.

    • Reply Ashley August 12, 2016 at 3:21 pm

      Everyone’s situation is different! It can’t be easy to be in such a remote town with no other grocery stores. I say each family sets whatever amount is right for them! As long as you’re not in the red each month, are able to contribute to retirement and investment funds, and out of debt with a 3-6 month savings, there’s no need to eat like a peasant. 🙂 The fact that you’re budgeting an amount at all is a huge step a lot of people don’t even take! So I say bravo, don’t beat yourself up!

  • Reply Suzy August 13, 2016 at 5:19 pm

    Ahhh! I’m so glad you posted this! I was just cringing at my horrible budgeting skills and wondering if I could find tips for sticking to my grocery budget. Thank you! Thank you! Initially, I was amazing at sticking to my grocery budget after I had my son, but then once I wasn’t so sleep-deprived and could think about really cooking, I started having the hardest time staying in budget.

    • Reply Ashley August 16, 2016 at 11:59 pm

      You’re probably being harder on yourself than you deserve! The fact that you’re trying is huge. I’ve so been there with the post-sleep-deprived grocery shopping! Super hard, but it’s totally worth it to crush those goals. 😉

  • Reply Nicola August 22, 2016 at 9:42 pm

    Hi Ashley all the way from New Zealand, our food costs are different than in the states but my challenge was to reduce my family of four food budget by half which has been possible to my surprise. To Alyssa in northern Canada it is dearer the more remote as the travel cost of food. In NZ at the bottom of the world is a long way for imports so I have discovered my biggest food saving is a well stocked pantry. We had some lovely fish called Hoki on special last week and needed tartare sauce🤔 we didn’t have any but always have mayonnaise and google told us to add capers onion gherkin( or do you call it pickle) and yum we have it 2 mins later whizzed up. Most of sauces we do this way for enchiladas etc. We buy only the meat on special ie. This week 4 nights chicken breast,3 nights fish purchased but eating fish chicken beef and lamb this week. I always make a list, have our own chickens for eggs, spend $175 a week but used to spend $350 a week which would be avg for size of family here most of my friends manage 250 -400. My favourite cookbooks are my best friends like “Save with Jamie” and Alison Holst dollars and sense. One of the greatest things from this has been the rubbish we send out of our household has quartered. Lots less waste. P.s that includes all meals for whole family as we all take our lunches to school, work here too. Too far for take out and only eat out on trips away. We wish to spend knowing where it all goes to have more spending money for life. My daughter went to Japan with school last year and saving for a trip for my son.

    • Reply Ashley September 5, 2016 at 1:23 am

      Hi, Nicola from New Zealand! You’re officially one of the coolest people I know. I just love how you’re setting a goal and making it work, sacrificing and being creative all along the way. Totally inspiring. It just goes to show you really can make a budget work if you’re determined! And the payoff will be truly worth it I’m sure. Thanks so much for sharing! New Zealand really is on my bucket list of places to visit, and it has nothing to do with Lord of the Rings. (It has everything to do with Lord of the Rings…) 🤓

  • Reply Melanie August 30, 2016 at 10:19 am

    One thing my fiance and I have adopted has been to do Blue Apron about once a month (a meal service where all ingredients are delivered to you for the designated meals). It’s $60 for three meals for 2 people. So for 3 nights of the week, we have our dinners figured out.
    We know it’s not the cheapest by any means, but we think of it as a sort of treat without going out to eat. We love cooking and trying new recipes, and it creates a really fun in-home date night of cooking a new recipe together. We also have begun to incorporate many of their recipes into our meal planning when we find a meal we like. This is not a plug for Blue Apron, or any meal service, but just my two cents on a way we have made something work for us. 🙂

    • Reply Ashley September 5, 2016 at 1:25 am

      I’ve heard so many awesome things about Blue Apron, and I’m dying to try it out! It sounds like a great option if you want to try new things, bond for an at-home date like you mentioned, or just have an easy option each week. And the prices really do sound reasonable. I think this may be the month we pull the trigger. 🙂

  • Reply JD April 1, 2017 at 10:35 pm

    Every two weeks we take out a set amount of money. For the Seattle metro area, food costs are a bit more expensive; I pull $300 every 2 weeks. $100 goes toward “household things” like furnace air filters or soap or razor blades or toothpaste. “Stuff you can’t eat”. The rest of the money goes towards groceries most weeks. What I do is I put one $100 in the safe in an envelope for the next week’s groceries, and budget/spend up to that $100 that’s left. There’s less of a feeling of concern because each and every week I know what I have to work with. (It was different when I was in school with an infant and no job, trying to make $80 in supplemental nutritional benefits and some WIC stretch enough to cover us for the whole month; would’ve been great to have a crock pot back then! But a lot of my budgeting habits were refined during that time and lost when my husband at the time and I were making great money–$400+ every two weeks? I was happy we could do this! But it was such a bad idea.)

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