I’m Always Afraid I’m Going to Be Over Budget on Food. Here’s How I’m Dealing with It.

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Ayumi Takahashi)

A hundred and fifty dollars a week on groceries sound like a lot of money. If you’re anything like me, though, you know how quickly that goes each week at the grocery store. After loading up on the weekly staples (lunch stuff, fruit, pantry basics, that sort of thing) spending the rest is far too easy — especially when you’ve got two kids to feed.

Of any part of my monthly budget, the grocery store always requires the most attention and focus to not go over budget. And that makes sense, considering other expenses tend to be relatively fixed. Housing costs are almost always the same. I can predict what utilities will be, depending on the month. But groceries? That bill is totally up to me. What if I make some terrible mistake and totally miscalculate what I’m putting in my cart? What if that dinner party I offered to host throws things out of whack? What if we spend too much on food and don’t have enough money left over for the other things my kids need?

You see? It’s easy for panic to set in. Or if panic is the wrong word, maybe utter trepidation is a better one.

I still don’t have it all figured out, but I do have some methods to help me deal with all the feelings I get whenever I think about how much money I spend on food.

1. I try to be realistic.

When setting a budget, I need to live in the real world. For a while, I was setting a weekly budget that I would never be able to stick to. I’d blow way past it. And then I’d feel terrible, sulk, and lament that budgets are just out to get me. After months of trying, I found the magic mark for me and my family: $600 per month.

2. I budget by the month — not the week.

Instead of thinking of it as a weekly budget, I look at the number for the whole month. Some weeks I might be a little over the $150 mark; some weeks I might be a little under. Moving from a weekly budget to a monthly one enabled me to average it out over the month and keep better track of how much I’m spending.

3. I’ve picked the best store for me.

I’ve read stories of people who collect two or three sale circulars each week and bargain shop at multiple stores. I simply don’t have the time to do that. My solution was to put the supermarkets around my house on a one- or two-week trial. I went to Store A one week, Store B the next. I even tried delivery services.

I kept my shopping habits the same at each store. Then, I asked myself a straightforward question: Where did I get the lowest prices and the best quality? The delivery services saved time and prevented some impulse purchases, but for me a physical store proved to be best. I’m comfortable with where I shop and keep it the same each week.

4. I give myself time to prepare.

I give myself one hour every week before I begin to shop. I browse the sales circular for my store, go through old recipes for inspiration, and look for sales on pantry staples that I will always need. I plan most of the weekly dinner menu in advance. At least one of them is a low-cost night. By preparing for supermarket trips, I feel more in control as I push the cart around.

5. I plan almost all of my family’s meals to limit impulse buys.

I only leave one or two nights on the dinner menu open. This way, when inspiration strikes at the grocery store, I can be creative. But knowing that I have limited days to play with means that I won’t go crazy filling my cart with impulse purchases (and therefore busting my budget).

6. I’m learning to embrace the freezer — and invest in good-quality freezer bags.

We all know the most expensive items every week tend to be proteins like meat and seafood. My store tends to offer deals on buying in bulk. When it makes sense, I do it. But I learned not to go cheap on the freezer bags. The cheap brands that didn’t protect my food didn’t do me any good. I’ve learned to always label the bags with a date. And I keep a running list of what’s actually in the freezer on the outside of the refrigerator. That way, the stuff I’m stacking up doesn’t just become “out of sight, out of mind.”

7. I’ve started making dinner for lunch and breakfast for dinner.

I’ve found that it is usually cheaper to make more of a certain dish than to make two different dishes. Depending on what I’m making for dinner, I think about making more than my family needs and then heating up the leftovers for the next day’s lunch. (This works particularly well for me, given my weird aversion to eating cold lunch.) Every couple of weeks, I also consider making breakfast for dinner. Those items — eggs, pancakes, fruit, avocados — tend to be cheaper. And there’s virtually no type of leftover shredded meat that doesn’t taste good in an omelette.

Your turn. What are your tips for getting past the dread and actually enjoying living within a budget?