Groceries are one of our budget items that seems to get out of control quickly! It surprises me how one extra trip in a week can throw my budget wildly out of wack. The food budget is one of the few areas that I can easily reduce with better management, so I’ve found that having some tricks for keeping under control are a must..
My buying strategy has evolved during years of poor college student living, followed by unemployment. These are my top three tips for feeding our family on a fixed budget every month!
1. Have a schedule
Every Monday, I arrange a shopping expedition. I used to shop every two weeks, but as my children have grown bigger and our health preferences have evolved, I’ve discovered that one week is a terrific match for us. My shopping day is Monday. If I discover something on Tuesday that I missed, it will have to wait until next Monday. This is the policy of the family.
The only exceptions to the shopping plan are unforeseen occurrences (if you invite me to dinner at the last minute, I’ll still go to the store to get flowers!). Because I price everything out before my shopping trip and just buy what’s on my list, having a timetable helps us stay within our budget (more on those things later). I’ve discovered that when I go on unplanned shopping expeditions, I tend to pick up excess.
In addition, having a scheduled shopping trip helps me prepare physically – never shopping hungry or thirsty, for example, is a great way to avoid impulse buys. I typically shop in the morning so that I don’t look for ways to get out of dinner either. When I shop after 2 pm, the frozen pizza isle gets a little too tempting.
2. Create a list
I make an effort to never go shopping without a list. For a long time, this meant keeping a tangible, written list on paper. Now I keep the list on my phone or in my brain. I’ve had seven years to hone my discipline and prevent impulse purchases, and having a list is my most valuable asset.
Occasionally, I’ll come upon a new product or anything else that piques my interest. I’ll maintain a fresh list at the bottom of my shopping list with “grocery options” for the following week. Basically, I jot things down to remember them, and then I add them to my shopping list for the following week if we actually want or need them. Otherwise, I can think about them when I’m not surrounded by retail marketing and consider if I truly need them (look at you, birthday cake oreos).
Making a list might be difficult at first, especially if you are new to meal planning. It becomes easy to anticipate your family’s requirements each week once you get started. Shopping with a list ensures that you understand what is entering your home and why it is there. Having a list helps us keep a lot of junk food out of our house.
We are more conscious of our snacking habits, preferring trail mix, almonds, and fruit than bags of chips. It’s simpler to accomplish this with a list since junk food branding is really convincing. Aside from putting goods on a list, I normally have each item priced out so I know I’m staying under our grocery budget.
Read also: 7 Tips to Mastering Healthy Grocery Shopping
3. Determine the cost.
When we move to a new neighbourhood, I bring a pricing guide with me. In it, I keep note of the costs of my most often purchased things at all local retailers. This serves two purposes. First, I know which stores offer the greatest deals.
Sam’s Club and Walmart have the best prices on our grocery staples. I know this because during our first three months in Texas, I shopped at every other store, from Target to Costco to Aldi, and documented all the prices in my price notebook!
While not every item is cheaper at Walmart, the majority of them are. Rather than travelling from store to store looking for the best deal, I prefer to minimise my driving time and limit my shopping excursions to those two locations.
(I should note that Target prices are very competitive, but I found myself splurging so often at Target that I stopped shopping there. The dollar section gets me every time.)
The second benefit is that I am very familiar with the cost of our typical groceries. I can estimate the cost within a dollar most times, so I can quickly add up our grocery list. This is important because I can decide if we need to take a few items off, or if we are under-budget and can stock up on a few extra things.
Having a good handle on our weekly grocery costs helps me balance out our spending over the month, so we don’t front load each month stocking up on paper towels or pasta.
Store pickup, in my opinion, is a game changer in terms of budgeting. You can view not only the price of each item you want, but also your total before you order! You may pick it up and avoid making impulsive purchases! Store pickup at Walmart and Sams is free in our location, so it was a no-brainer for me.
I still make a paper list, but I now add goods we need to my pickup app shopping basket when they run out during the week. I go over the list on Sunday evenings following our budget meeting. I add any more goods or delete any needless items to keep us under our budget.
I double-check the totals for my Sam’s and Walmart orders to ensure they are within my budget, then place my orders for Monday AM. When compared to shopping when seven months pregnant and with two small children in tow, store pickup is simply too convenient to pass up, and it has become my major shopping strategy.
When we lived in Utah, we did all of our shopping at Smith’s. We participated in the store rewards program to get points off on Gas. We got “member prices” on groceries and discounted gas. Win-win!
Then and now, we also pick a credit card to use for grocery shopping that gets extra cash back. The card I use for grocery shopping gets 2% back on groceries instead of the normal 1% on everything that most cards use. We are keeping our eyes peeled for something with a higher rate, since groceries are such a big chunk of our monthly expenses.
Grocery store gift cards are also our favorite way to redeem our Swagbucks. I wrote a whole post about how I use Swagbucks to help us save a little extra, and this was a HUGE help for us when our income was lower. Swagbucks also has coupons you can print and redeem for money off plus a Swagbucks incentive, but I’m notoriously bad at forgetting to use coupons so I haven’t tried this.
Our grocery budget
Now that I’ve given you my tips, here is how our actual grocery budget works. In general, I stick to the ideal that $100 per person, per month is sufficient. For our family of four, that means $400 a month. That said, our actual budget ends up being closer to $450 a month. In my budget spreadsheet, we plan for $450 a month in groceries, but our goal is to spend $400.
Our grocery budget includes all of our household items, like toilet paper, cleaning products, and personal care items. With that in mind, I feel like the extra $50 a month is just the right amount to accommodate those needs for our family right now.
We also have a baby on the way, and we tend to add another $50-100 a month to the grocery budget for diapers and wipes. After the baby comes, our family grocery budget will probably be about $600 a month, but my goal is to keep it under $550.
Read also: 7 Tips to Stick to Your Holiday Budget
Since I shop weekly, I give myself a grocery budget of $100 each week. Some weeks I go a little over, but having the goal of $100 keeps me frugal and helps us stay under our $450 cap.
During our unemployment phase, I cut our grocery bill dramatically and we only spent $50 a week. Our meals were not super nutritious or varied, but we did what we had to to get by. I learned so much from living on the bare minimum that living on twice that felt easy for a while. Then my oldest turned five and started eating like crazy, and we are feeling the strain again.
My point is you can probably buy less food than you realize and still have plenty to eat, but everyone’s family consumption is different. Be conscious about what your buying and why by using a meal plan and a grocery list. Avoid impulse buys by doing store pickup or scheduling your shopping trip at a good time. Doing these things can help you manage your pantry and your budget more effectively!