Grocery budgeting is a science, and an art. So much must be balanced: time, preference, income, store availability, seasons, life situations, and more. These are my top 10 tips for creating a grocery budget—and sticking to it.
1. Track what you actually spend for a month.
Before you can make a realistic grocery budget, you have to have a realistic idea of what you usually spend. You might spend more on food (including drinks and eating out) than you realize. Start tracking what you spend for a month. Keep your receipts.
Whether you use a spreadsheet or a Word document, or just paper and pencil, it can be helpful to divide your food expenses into itemized lists. Drinks: coffee, tea, soda, alcohol, juices, mixers. Fresh produce. Frozen meals. Baking items. Meat. The key is to track everything that you consume.
Pro tip: to make this easier when you go back through your receipts, load your groceries from cart to cashier in itemized groups.
2. Budget per month, but plan per week.
I track my income monthly, so I also track grocery bills monthly. Some people track weekly; it's a personal preference. I've found it's easier to stick to a monthly grocery bill, as I often go for two weeks without shopping. On the other hand, it is equally key to plan your meals per week, to avoid eating out or ordering in. I suppose you could plan your meals for an entire month, but for me that's not realistic. Having a rough idea of what we'll be eating for breakfast, lunch, and dinner helps me shop accordingly.
3. Name your priorities.
I'm learning to tell myself, "If this, then not that," as I shop for groceries. There are certain items that I prioritize for my wellbeing, such as fresh foods and basic whole foods. Towards the end of a month, I'll nix fringe items before cutting out my priority items, such as that new flavor of tea, juice, optional toppings for meals, and desserts.
4. Don’t eat out.
Just don't do it. Eating out is the Trojan horse of grocery budgeting. It sneaks into your monthly budget and destroys everything you've worked so hard for. Dramatic, yes, but true. We eat out for special occasions or with friends, but have made it our personal policy to never eat out as a response to laziness. Knowing your priorities and keeping basics, frozen double batches, and quick meals on hand can help with this.
5. Prize (and plan) variety.
...Or you will eat out, unless you have a willpower of steel. Plan variety into your grocery lists to stay well and keep food enjoyable. Some people can eat ramen for a month in the name of saving money. I can't. However, I'm also the kind of person who finds something they love and wants to eat it endlessly... a habit which always results in me tiring of that food for months afterward. So I try to plan budget-friendly meals that I know I'll enjoy, and rotate those meals throughout several months.
6. Keep a fridge list.
Keep a running list on your fridge and write down items that you need as soon as or shortly before you run empty. This is a basic tip but it can make all the difference between grocery runs that result in spending sprees or incomplete shopping.
7. Learn to love your leftovers.
They are your friends. They will feed you while protecting your budget. Invest in a good set of glass food storage containers—your food will last longer with better flavor. Plan meals that make good leftovers, and if you're feeling ambitious, make double or triple batches and freeze.
8. Don’t be duped by coupons.
Coupons are great — if they are for items that you need and from brands that you like. Too often, coupons trick customers into buying unnecessary items "because it's a good deal." Furthermore, generic versions of many items in the coupon book are even cheaper than the price you'll pay for a discounted name brand item. So if you find a coupon for an item that you usually buy, celebrate and purchase. Otherwise, steer clear and seek out cheaper options.
9. Stock when there’s a sale, but don’t overstock.
Sales are the cousin of coupons: they can often dupe customers into buying more because it's "a great deal," not because they need that item or can even use that quantity. On items that keep well, stock up with sales.
But a common mistake is to buy a few extra items of each product, thinking that you're saving time and money by not having to return later to the store. I did this for years before I realized I was still shopping at my usual rate, buying a few extras of this and that each time, which was inflating my grocery bills. Unless you live hours from a grocery store, this sort of pseudo-bulk shopping isn't helpful.
10. Take the time to comparison shop.
The suggestion of comparison shopping is inevitably met with a chorus of voices protesting the efficiency of "driving all over" just to find cheaper items. And I would have to agree. I used to shop at a closer grocery that was more expensive, than transitioned to a larger, cheaper store much further away, then began shopping at three different stores, with a separate list for each. Now I'm back to shopping at the closer store that's a bit pricier. Time and driving costs must always be factored into budgeting. There are still a few items that I will buy once a month at the larger, more distant store, but I don't have the time to go to several stores on each grocery run.
However, I also comparison shop within stores: some items are cheaper in the international aisle, or the yogurt in the organics aisle, for example, might be on sale when my usual yogurt selection isn't. So pick the stores that are most efficient for your shopping, familiarize yourself with your options, and make a plan.
If you shop on a budget, what are your top tips? Share in the comments below!
(Image credits: Michaela Cisney)