5 Signs You Need to Adjust Your Grocery Budget

updated May 24, 2019
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Welcome to a column from The Financial Diet, one of our very favorite sites, dedicated to money and everything it touches. One of the best ways to take charge of your financial life is through food and cooking. This column from TFD founders Chelsea Fagan and Lauren Ver Hage will help you be better with money, thanks to the kitchen.

When’s the last time you really thought about what you spend on food? Maybe you wing it and just buy everything that’s on sale that week. Or maybe you set a grocery budget years ago, but haven’t adjusted it, despite the fact that your life has changed drastically. Or maybe you don’t even remember the last time you made a grocery list.

Food spending obviously varies; a particularly enthusiastic home cook may prioritize expensive meats, while someone who sees food as nothing more than a necessity may be fine subsisting on beans and rice. With all of our different lifestyles, diets, and interests, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to food budgeting.

5 Signs You Need to Adjust Your Grocery Budget

But there is a right and wrong way to food budget for yourself. If you can’t remember the last time you tweaked your grocery budget, maybe it’s time — here are the tell-tale signs.

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1. You’re on a first-name basis with the person taking your takeout order.

If you order takeout so habitually that you have more plastic utensils than actual silverware, it may be time to revisit your grocery budget. Do a little soul-searching; ask yourself why you order takeout (or food delivery) so frequently. Chances are, you’re a busy person and simply have nothing in the house — or, at least, nothing that you’re going to bother cooking.

No matter where you live, if you order takeout even just once or twice a week, it adds up. If you’re busy or simply averse to cooking, try weaning off your takeout habit by making more food at home. You’re not going to become Julia Child overnight, for instance, but you can at least routinely stock up on frozen “takeout” favorites to keep on hand, like frozen pizza or potstickers. It won’t be as cost-effective as cooking, but it will be an affordable alternative for when you simply can’t muster the energy — and it’ll be almost as easy as typing an order into Seamless.

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2. You don’t remember the last time you made a grocery list.

It’s the cardinal rule of food shopping: Make a list. A list is your guard against impulse buying — if you go into the store without a list, you’re going to be so much more susceptible to center aisle temptations (aka whichever seasonal Oreo flavor catches your eye). And that means you’re probably spending too much on food.

Chances are, if you’re not making grocery lists, you don’t even know what you’re spending on food. How are you supposed to plan your grocery budget if you’re not even sure what you’re buying? Start changing this by looking at what you keep in your kitchen or, better yet, your last few grocery receipts. Was everything worth buying, or did you end up not wanting to eat it all? Even if you’re not shopping for specific recipes, start making a list — you’ll at least make sure you’re buying things you’ll actually eat and have more control over what you’re spending.

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3. You’re shocked every time you reach the checkout.

Failing to plan what you’re spending is almost as bad as failing to plan what you’re buying. If you’re shocked by the numbers that appear every time you reach the end of the checkout line, are you really paying attention to your budget as you walk through the store? Have a good idea of what your food items are going to cost you before you go through the store.

On a related note, just because something is on sale doesn’t mean you should buy it. A good deal is only a good deal if it fits in your existing budget. You’d be shocked at how much those tiny additions add up at the end of a shopping trip.

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4. You constantly have to throw out food that’s gone bad.

Maybe you’ve been here: You decide you’re going to be healthy, so you buy three bunches of kale and too many avocados (they’re on sale!). These things last, right? But even if you really love kale and avocados, you might not want to eat them with every meal. And if you buy too much fresh produce — perhaps because you’re buying for an aspirational, “healthy” version of yourself that isn’t really you — it’s going to sit in your fridge uneaten, eventually go bad, and ultimately end up in the garbage.

Americans are world leaders in food waste — and changing that starts with all of us, on an individual level. If you’re constantly throwing out spoiled food, start paying better attention to what you actually like to eat. Don’t buy something with an upcoming expiration date if you’re not completely sure you’re going to eat it. And remember, at the end of the day, you’re buying for you — not an ideal version of you.

And remember that the freezer is your friend!

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5. You skimp so much that you never have enough food.

On the other hand, maybe you should be spending more on food than you currently are. If you constantly run out of food and end up skipping a meal or two, that’s not good — not eating is no solution to your budgeting woes. Adjusting your food budget goes both ways: You need to make sure you’re not spending too much, but you should also be spending enough to feed yourself properly. If you’re really strapped for cash, start seeing where else you may be able to cut back in your spending.