The Best Budget Grocery Shopping Advice from People Who Never Overspend on Food

published Jan 7, 2018
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Recently I was talking to a friend and the subject of budgeting came up. Actually, it’s one of our favorite subjects, but this time the subject of our grocery budgets came up specifically. We both felt like we were spending way too much on groceries for our families of four (sometimes upwards of $300 per week), and on top of that, felt like our cabinets were full and a lot of food went bad or leftovers went uneaten. We lamented that it was hard to calculate how much we should be spending on food.

Well it turns out, the USDA actually publishes average food prices for families every month. So I investigated. Here’s what the most recent chart (for the end of 2018) had to suggest for my family of four.

  • Thrifty food plan: $129 per week
  • Low-Budget food plan: $164.90 per week
  • Moderate food plan: $203.70 per week
  • Liberal food plan: $252.10 per week

You can find the full chart here and adjust it based on your household and kids’ ages — it’s fascinating!

That said, it’s one thing to see a number — it’s another thing to meet it. We have one friend we consider an excellent grocery shopper. She goes to Whole Foods once a week and budgets $175 per trip, just a little more than the USDA’s “low-budget” plan. In one year, she went $3 over her family’s budget. FOR THE YEAR. AT WHOLE FOODS! So I asked her — and surveyed other smart shoppers, too — how she stays on a budget and also manages to feed her family like a normal person. Here are their tips.

1. Make a budget.

Your first step to sticking to a budget is to actually have one. To do that, you have to decide how much you can spend. The chart I referenced helps, and you can find other resources from the USDA here. The average consumer spends about six percent of their monthly budget on food, if that’s an easier point of reference.

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2. Comparison shop.

A big part of budgeting is just being aware of how much things cost. You can literally compare apples to apples (ha) and spend, say, $2 less per pound by getting a different variety. Take the time to compare the ingredient list and nutritional information of two brands of packaged goods with a big price difference. While some things are cheaper for a reason, if you look at the labels and the ingredients and nutritional information is the same, you’re literally only paying for the packaging.

3. Avoid distractions.

Part of the reason my friend shops at Whole Foods — versus Trader Joe’s or Harris Teeter or Target — is that there are fewer temptations. She found she would go into Target for diapers and come out with all sorts of doodads that added to her grocery budget. Depending on your personality, that could mean avoiding the candy or chip aisle at your local grocery store, or ordering online for delivery or pickup to help stick to your guns.

4. Practice portion control.

This may seem counter-intuitive, as many websites will tell you to buy in bulk, and a handful of foods, like nuts and grains, are legitimately cheaper in the bulk aisle. But for many foods, buying more than you need just ends up being wasteful. Some people can eat leftovers every day for a week (my parents), but others won’t touch them (my husband). So don’t buy a six-pack of chicken breasts when you only need four. Don’t pretend you’re going to make soup with the extra chicken if you never really do. Just buy what you need for the meals you know you’ll prepare. If your kids will only eat chicken legs, just get the four-pack of chicken legs.

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5. Get the whole family on board.

The more buy-in your partner and kids have on the front end, the less likely you are to end up with a plate of barely touched food at the end of dinner. While you should probably refuse to serve mac and cheese for dinner every night (even though we know you want to give in), setting expectations about what everyone will be getting for their meals can help with food waste. One woman I spoke to brings her whole family to the store, and they plan meals as they go. I’d prefer to shop solo, with a rough plan in hand. Do what works for your family.

6. Shop local and in season.

As much as you can, buy foods that are currently being grown in your region, because the cost of transporting all that refrigerated produce in a barge or truck from across the continent or overseas is definitely reflected in the price tag. And you can feel good about supporting the local community. You may be able to do this by shopping at the farmers market or getting produce through a CSA too (as long as you really do eat all those CSA veggies). In the winter, consider getting frozen berries instead of fresh to save some money.

7. Buy the store brand.

On the advice from one source for this story, I recently converted from LaCroix to the Harris Teeter brand seltzer. When I looked at them side by side, they were literally half the price! You can save a lot this way — especially with some of the easy kids’ foods like soups, pastas, and snacks.

8. Avoid packaged foods.

Things that are pre-cut, pre-marinated, or pre-portioned are generally more expensive than buying whole veggies, marinating your own meats, or putting your own almonds into reusable containers. These things are certainly a convenience, but you’re legitimately paying someone else to do the work for you.

9. Space out bigger purchases.

Household supplies tend to be more expensive, so if you buy all your dish soap, paper towels, and toilet paper in the same week, it’ll throw you off. Try to cycle in one at a time to avoid that. And be aware that meat and seafood can be more expensive than veggies, so avoid eating steak and shrimp in the same week.

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10. Be careful with coupons.

While there are those extreme couponers who save gazillions of dollars by clipping away, for many of us they can actually be money-wasters. “I frequently find that the coupons are for products I wouldn’t otherwise buy,” says one shopper. “And sometimes even with the coupons, the products being promoted are still more expensive than the store brand.” Certainly use them if it’s for something you’d normally be buying — otherwise, they’re useless.

More on Coupons

11. Sign up for the loyalty card.

Not a store credit card, but the one where you get points and discounts. The shoppers I spoke with all said that these cards track your purchases and offer you deals on the things you’re buying already (versus the coupon problem above).

Have you tried any of these? Any tips we’re missing?