Maximizing Your Budget: Groceries

Maximizing Your Grocery Budget

In 2015, we’re putting extra emphasis on budgeting since it’s a must for financial success. Each month, we tackle a different category, and by years’ end, we’ll have one big resource for maximizing your entire budget.

One question we get asked more than almost any other is How do you keep your grocery budget so low? Grocery spending seems to be a trouble category for everyone — us included. When we moved to New York City, we had to experiment with different stores and delivery methods until we finally found a way to make our grocery budget work out here.

The crazy thing about groceries is that if you’re not careful, there’s really no limit to how much money you can spend on food. For some people, the splurge is totally worth it. And that’s great. But if you’re like us and you like eating well, but you don’t like spending a ton to do it, here’s a list of all of our grocery spending tricks and tips.

Before moving forward, I have to note that I don’t coupon. I know many are able to save a ton on groceries by couponing and I applaud their incredible skills. But for now, it’s just not my thing. It’s an opportunity cost and it just hasn’t made the cut yet. If it is your thing, keep on doin’ what you’re doin’ and killing it with your grocery bill.

And now, onto our tips for keeping your grocery spending in check:

Plan your meals

We all have to eat. Every day. Knowing that, meals are an easy aspect of our lives to plan in advance. I usually plan 7 to 10 days’ worth of meals, write down the ingredients I need for them, and then go grocery shopping. My grocery list consists of dinner ingredients, generic lunch and breakfast ingredients (bread, sandwich meat, cereal, milk), baking staples I’m short on (flour, brown sugar, etc.), and snacks. After my grocery trip, I write down all of the meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) I’ve bought ingredients for and post it on our fridge. Next to the dinner meals, I note how many nights’ worth of dinner the meal provides so I can plan out which days I’ll need to cook. Each day, I choose from that list until it’s time for another grocery trip. And if some of the meals have perishable items, I’m sure to cook those first.

Track your spending as you go

Johnny and I are big proponents of tracking spending in real time. And there isn’t a budgeting category where this is more important than your grocery spending. Buying groceries over the course of a month involves purchasing hundreds of items. And chances are that some of those items aren’t necessary or are more expensive than what you should be paying. If you’re not closely tracking your grocery spending, those items will oftentimes be purchased without a second thought. And $5 extra here or $10 extra there over the course of 30 days can add up to a hefty grocery bill at month’s end. Looking back, it’s hard to think of any specific items you could have omitted from your spending. BUT, when you’re tracking your spending in the moment and trying to keep your grocery trip under, say, $100? Suddenly, it becomes very clear that Double Stuf Oreos aren’t a necessity (except for the days when they are). Or that the really gourmet meal you want to make that costs $30 just for the ingredients might not be in the cards this month. In short, you find wiggle room for saving money where you didn’t know wiggle room existed.

Keep it simple

While Johnny and I like to eat healthy, we also tend to keep our meals fairly simple. This is partially because I don’t have a ton of time to spend cooking (as I’m sure many of you can relate). But it also saves us money. You don’t have to eat expensively in order to eat well. The most basic (and inexpensive) ingredients can make the most delicious meals. Many of our go-to meals consist of salad, chicken, and a variety of interchangeable toppings and dressings. We also love meals with tortillas, toppings, and a variety of interchangeable meats — from chicken fajitas to popcorn shrimp tacos to meatless sweet potato tacos, the possibilities are endless. Finally, we love soups and crockpot meals. In short, our meals are mostly one-dish options that taste great but don’t consume much money or time.

Eat leftovers

So here’s my confession: I don’t like leftovers. But over the years, I’ve come around to eating them. And I’ve found that some foods make better leftovers than others. Soups, for instance, taste just as great reheated as they did on day one. If we have food left over at the end of a meal, we stick it in the fridge and eat it until it’s gone. This is a simple, surefire way to cut food costs.

Stock up on sale items

This is another simple tip that can go a long way. If one of your staple items is on sale, stock up on it! Johnny loves Cinnamon Toast Crunch. And I like it, too. We’re both big cereal eaters, surprise surprise — mostly because it requires little to no effort to prepare. So when Costco has a sale on its bulk-size Cinnamon Toast Crunch, I buy a few of them. We do this with several of our go-to items. It may be more money up front, but it saves us money in the long run.

Shop around for the best value

We love Costco, which is well documented in this post. From ground beef to milk to eggs to frozen chicken breasts to sandwich meat, we’ve found big savings on many of our staples by being Costco members. And we have other stores here in NYC that are our go-to for other items. While it might be a little more inconvenient, it’s important to find which stores offer the best value for your different grocery items. When we lived in Utah, I mostly stuck to Costco and Walmart. And while Walmart might have been a less enjoyable shopping experience than, say, Target or a local grocer, the money I saved on groceries from shopping there made it worth it. If your number one priority is saving money on groceries, scope out until you find the stores that offer the lowest prices on different foods.

Put all those together, and that’s how we keep our grocery spending in check each month. If we stick to these guidelines, we stick to our grocery budget. What tips and tricks do you use to keep your grocery spending under wraps? 

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  • Reply Valerie May 7, 2015 at 7:18 am

    In addition to meal planning, I take 10 minutes to hit the sales ads from a couple stores in the area, like Aldi and the local grocer. Since Wal-Mart price matches at the register, you can get the low prices other stores offer with very little effort. In fact, I’ve only once had a cashier double check my prices (not that I would fib, just saying it really doesn’t take any additional time.)

    I usually save $5-10 bucks per trip by planning meals around the meats and produce that are on sale and stocking up on staples (shredded cheese, for us) and freezing when it’s on sale.

    • Reply Joanna May 10, 2015 at 1:14 am

      Oh yeah! That’s the great thing about Walmart… the price matching! That makes it super easy to do coupons. Thanks for sharing, Valerie!

  • Reply Brian May 7, 2015 at 7:31 am

    We purchased so much chicken this week it was nuts. Kroger, Aldi, Fresh Thyme and one other supermarket over here all had it on sale ranging from 1.77/lb to 1.99/lb. Since it is grilling season I can always do the unthinkable and throw a frozen chicken breast on the grill (I usually try to quick thaw it first, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do).

    We put a dry erase meal planning board on the fridge and write out what the plan is for the week. We usually stick to it for 6 out of the 7 days, but sometimes life gets in the way and you have to adjust.

    • Reply Joanna May 10, 2015 at 1:16 am

      Way to go. It’s totally worth it to stock up when there’s a sale. And grilled chicken in the summer is the best.

      A dry erase board is a great idea! Currently, ours is just a piece of paper I tape to the fridge…

  • Reply Tarynkay May 7, 2015 at 7:56 am

    Using up what I have first before buying more has been a game changer for me. When I write a grocery list, I go through the fridge and cupboard and write down the food that we have first. Then I plan as many meals as possible out of the food we already own. Then I go through the sales flyers (online) and plan the remainder of our meals around what is on special. I also check out the manager’s specials at the store itself and as long as the food looks good (so no greying meat or floppy carrots) I will adjust our meal plan as necessary to include those. I don’t seek out coupons or spend time on that (I usually don’t find it is worth it as we don’t buy a lot of stuff that they print coupons for) but if I happen to see one for something that we are buying anyhow, I will use it.

    The biggest thing I have ever done to reduce our grocery budget was to stop throwing out food that had gone off. I don’t mean that we started eating spoiled casserole, I just became more strategic about using stuff up. When I realized this was a problem for us, I started weighing the food that we threw out and thinking about the probable cost per pound. This really motivated me to work towards zero food waste.

    • Reply Joanna May 10, 2015 at 1:19 am

      I love hearing your methods! So many good ideas. I do the same thing with going through our cupboard and checking what we have first. Super helpful! And agreed… eliminating food waste can be a game changer with the grocery budget!

  • Reply B May 7, 2015 at 8:01 am

    I like the idea of putting the dinner menu on the fridge. I may have to do that. I plan our meals but dont really write it down, and sometimes I forget lol. Another way we eat cheap is to eat Breakfast for dinner at least once a week. It is afterall one of my favorite meals, so it works out! plus it is quick!

    • Reply Joanna May 10, 2015 at 1:21 am

      That’s why I have to write it down… I forget anything that isn’t down on paper these days!

      And great tip with breakfast for dinner! I love that, too!

  • Reply Rob May 7, 2015 at 9:14 am

    Hi Joanna! Hope you and Johnny are getting lots of beauty sleep these nights? Yeah, right eh? 🙂

    I do most of the weekly shopping around here and my approach is:
    (1) each week I check the local grocery flyer (which I get online) for the food specials
    (2) make my shopping list accordingly and with our weekly planned meals in mind
    (3) maintain an excel spreadsheet of food prices so that I know in advance which items really are “on special”
    (4) once a month I go shopping with my neighbour dude (who has a Costco membership and can bring along a friend) and stock up on their specials in bulk. Thus I save on the Costco membership

    All of the above steps thus allows us to meet or under spend on a food budget and still leave room for that occasional extra yummy treat!

    • Reply Joanna May 10, 2015 at 1:24 am

      Wow, that’s quite the shopping routine! You are super dedicated having a spreadsheet of food prices! That’s a really great idea. Thanks for sharing!

  • Reply Katie Ball May 7, 2015 at 10:08 am

    Freezer food!!! Not everyone has a large enough freezer to do this, but you can really save a lot of money (and time!) by utilizing sales – particularly on meat – to build a freezer stock. When ground beef or chicken are on sale, I buy more than what we need for the week, cook it and freeze it. Sure meat always tastes better when cooked fresh, but… hello… busy working parents here!!! Then I can thaw it out and add it to a recipe – or, if I have enough time when I’m cooking it – I can go ahead & make it into a freezer-friendly meal (like lasagna or poppy seed chicken) so that all I have to do is take it out & bake it!

  • Reply Amanda S @ Passionately Simple Life May 7, 2015 at 2:56 pm

    The slow cooker! The best thing is that we can throw in whatever it is we want, add some chicken and call it a day with a salad on the side. It usually tastes pretty awesome and there is enough left over for leftovers the next day.

  • Reply Halsy May 7, 2015 at 2:58 pm

    We need to do a better job at keeping track of grocery spending in real time! But my favorite things to keep a relatively low food budget (similar to yours, ours is $ 375 for 2 adults, 1 preschooler and 1 toddler for food, toiletries and household products plus $75 for eating out) are:
    1) plan meals based on sales ads. I usually pick 2 stores to shop at per week almost always Kroger and Fresh Thyme. For those of you who live in Midwest, I highly reccommend Fresh Thyme for meat and rock bottom produce prices! Also on Wednesday the run their old and new weeks circular so you get to shop both!
    2) meal plan based on weeks events
    3) use crockpot and make freezer meals-love the meals Kelly posts at New Leaf Wellness
    4)check receipt before leave store or while checking out to make sure prices are correct
    5) use coupons for household products or at least take a moment to browse the digital coupons at kroger and other stores that have shoppers cards! There’s almost always coupons for household goods, produce and items like yogurt and cereal.
    6)keep a price book for items you buy most until you are familiar with what a good sales price at your top 2-3 stores.
    7) invest in a quarter cow etc to get best prices on grass fed meat if that’s your thing
    8)garden( even those living in city can do easy container garden for herbs, lettuce etc)
    9)cut out the junk food or limit your family to one treat per week or bake from scratch
    10)we also keep meals pretty simple

    • Reply Joanna May 10, 2015 at 1:26 am

      Never heard of Fresh Thyme, but it must be good since two of you mentioned it! Love all your tips! I’ll have to look into New Leaf Wellness now. And I love your idea of keeping a price book. I try to keep a mental price book, but with so many things on my mind these days, I need to just start writing it down!

  • Reply Melanie May 12, 2015 at 1:37 pm

    Wow, people do a LOT more than me to save on grocery costs. (I just finished reading all the comments above). I try to check coupons through my app for my grocery store. And sometimes Ill check the flyer… but I usually keep it around $150/month spending for one adult so I think that’s pretty good.
    I am trying to be better about planning my meals in advance a bit more, and writing the weekly menu (for myself) on the fridge…Im with you, Joanna, I just take a piece of scrap paper, write the meals, and stick it to the fridge 🙂
    Somehow if I buy celery for a recipe, the rest always gets thrown out. I just cant get into snacking on celery..ugh!

    My one good thing I do is occasionally try to do a “clean out” of the freezer and cupboards when they look too full (that overflowing annoys me). I have a lot more meals already in existence than I would have anticipated, and then save on groceries that week. 🙂

    • Reply Nicole May 13, 2015 at 9:33 am

      I also love using celery in recipes. I buy it and chop it up all at once. I use what I need and freeze the rest. That way, you have some for the next time you need it. Same with onions and veggies.

      • Reply Melanie May 13, 2015 at 10:52 am

        Nicole–I NEVER thought to just cut up celery and freeze the rest so I could use it again when I need it. I ALWAYS waste it. Now, with your tip, hopefully I will never waste celery again!! 🙂 Thanks for the great tip!

  • Reply Jules May 12, 2015 at 2:42 pm

    Ok…you had me at sweet potato tacos…is there a recipe for this cause wowzas

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