What I Learned from Tracking My Grocery Spending for 3 Months

updated Apr 30, 2019
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Last year, my family started a home budget in attempts to wrangle in our expenses and save for more exciting things like vacations and being debt-free. Three months of tracking income and expenses is where most finance pros will tell you to start and, holy moly, is it eye-opening! Groceries and dining out were our biggest expense — sometimes, embarrassingly, exceeding our mortgage or childcare expenses.

After tracking our general expenses for a while, I got really into budgeting and tracking our FOOD spending these last three months. I saved receipts and made notes not only on what we spent, but also what emotions were behind over- or under-spending on food through those three months. These were my biggest takeaways.

(Image credit: Meghan Splawn)

How I Tracked Our Grocery Spending

At first, I just logged every purchase on our expense tracker and totaled each one up at the end of the month. I also held onto every receipt for those months, so later I could compare pricing at different stores. In January, we tried an all-cash food budget — meaning we withdrew our entire food budget at the beginning of the month, put the cash in some envelopes, and only spent that cash on food. I’m a pen-and-paper tracker (there’s something more tactile about writing out each transaction), however, You Need a Budget and Mint are all popular apps for tracking and categorizing spending if you prefer digital tracking.

And now, back to the five biggest lessons I learned from tracking my family’s food budget.

(Image credit: Meghan Splawn)

1. It’s important to meal plan for every meal and snack — not just dinners.

Meal planning is the single easiest way to get control of your grocery budget, because it allows you to streamline meals and use what you have — without having to buy a bunch of extra ingredients. I had been meal planning our dinners for about six years, but I would just “pick up the basics” (LOL) for breakfasts and lunches and wing those two meals (and snacks).

Tracking our grocery spending showed me that, some weeks, I was spending $30 just on breakfast essentials! Now when I plan breakfast for the week, I can spend just $10 to $15 by remaking the same recipes or using the same ingredients a few times.

(Image credit: Meghan Splawn)

2. You should track what was and wasn’t on your grocery list.

If you feel like meal planning and tracking still isn’t making improvements in your grocery budget, try this: When you get home from shopping, highlight your receipts to point out anything that wasn’t on your list that you bought anyway. Critically examining your purchases will help you identify areas of savings.

For us, this was snack foods for our two kids. Our solution was to cut down on packaged snacks and get back to basics, like tubs of whole-milk yogurt (no tubes or individual containers) and making a few bulk snacks (think: granola bars or muffins) once a week.

(Image credit: Photo: Meghan Splawn; Design: Kitchn)

3. We’ve all got to stop shopping based on our emotions and our aspirations.

Emotions are at the root of all kinds of shopping. We buy clothes and furniture that makes us feel a certain way or like we’ve achieved something in our lives. Food isn’t really that much different. Some of us buy junk food when we’re stressed, ice cream to boost our moods, or too many vegetables that we can’t possibly eat in time when we feel like we need to make up for lost time.

My children (and my husband for that matter) are just not that into kale or even steel-cut oats, but I was buying them anyway because I felt like I was supposed to. It sounds super basic, but once you start shopping for exactly what your family likes to eat, your grocery spending drops significantly. And as a bonus, less kale rots in the crisper drawer.

4. A grocery budget needs to look long-term — not just at a single trip.

We’re in our third month of that all-cash grocery budget and, not surprisingly, we’re already beginning to see regular cycles in our spending. For example, a once-every-six-weeks Costco run can eat up an entire week’s worth of grocery cash without actually feeding us well for the week. However, that run can stock us up on staples that last several weeks.

The solution, I’ve learned, is to put $10 to $15 of grocery cash into a “sinking fund” (a short-term cash savings for a goal or event) for Costco once every other month. Maybe you’re not a Costco shopper, but you can use the idea for other household items or even to join a CSA, a meat share, or to finally get into the Rancho Gordo Bean Club.

How do you track your grocery budget? And what are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned from it? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

(Image credit: The Kitchn)