How Does a Family of Four Eat on $300/Month in Washington, D.C.?

One YNABer Shares Her Recipe for Grocery Budgeting Success

Written by Shannon Marie  |  on


We met Melinda, a 26-year-old wife and mother of two who lives in Manassas, VA, when she attended YNAB’s free Take Control of Your Food Budget workshop—and, as you’ll soon see, she’s an absolute whiz with her grocery budget.

“My grocery budget, [including] non-food items, such as laundry detergent, toilet paper, and baby wipes—but not diapers, those come gloriously from Amazon every month—is $300 per month … ”

If you’re scratching your head and wondering how on earth she does it, in D.C., no less (is she an actual wizard?!), you aren’t alone. We had to know more, and Melinda agreed to let us share her secrets here …

A Plan to Avoid Meal Prep!

The heart of Melinda’s plan (and the reason she’s so good at sticking to it) is flexibility. She says, “ … as a mother of two young boys, I find myself with less dedicated time, energy and superhuman-multitasking-skills for meal prep. I actually eat out more with YNAB because that’s how I defined my priorities. I wanted the flexibility of eating out, guilt-free, multiple times throughout the month.”

“No Coupons, Just Purposeful Buying.”

Melinda sticks to her grocery budget by spending most of it up front—about $175 to $225 at Costco and $50 to $60 at Aldi—leaving only $20 to $30 for the remainder of the month.

“At the beginning of the month, I hit up Costco for the bulk of my groceries. Within a couple days, I round out my grocery list at Aldi for the smaller items (canned tomatoes, canned fruit, canned beans, pasta, milk, eggs, rice, packaged cookies, etc.). At this point, I reserve [the rest of my grocery money] for milk, bananas, and anything else that comes up.”

As she shops, Melinda relies on two requirements to inform her purchases:

1. Don’t Waste (Food or Money)

As Melinda points out, this concept is easily summed up by a Zac Brown Band song, “I’ve got everything I need, and nothing that I don’t.”

Melinda says, “I try to buy only what I know we will consume for the month I’m in. If Costco has a really good coupon for a food item that I buy every month, then I will buy two of that item—one for the month I’m in and then I’ll save the other for the next month.”

2. Provide Nutrition

At the store, Melinda pulls a KonMari-esque maneuver. She’ll take an item off the shelf, hold it in her hands and ask herself, “Will this item fill my family’s bellies and provide nutrition?”

Just kidding, but she does something very similar. Melinda says, “My dialogue in the store goes something like this … ‘Is this a good bang-for-my-buck? Is there a similar, cheaper alternative? Are we really going to eat this? And before it spoils? Is this going to fill someone’s belly? What can we eat with it? Do I want my kids to eat this? Do I want my husband to eat this? Will they want to eat it? Does this add anything, nutritionally?’

“Of course, I don’t actually ask all of those questions for every item, anymore. My shopping is much more predictable and streamlined now. But those questions are my measuring stick for my shopping and for any new items I consider purchasing.”

As for storage, Melinda admits that she’s kind of into organization (#understatement), but has an ordinary amount of space to work with: “Just for the record, I have a standard-sized, side-by-side fridge/freezer. I do not have a pantry. I have two dedicated, shallow cabinets (12” deep) in my island for food, plus a bread drawer, and I use the top shelf of my plates-and-bowls cupboard for overflow.”

But What Do They Eat, Though?

The idea of buying “90% of a month’s groceries in one trip, even produce” sounds impressively efficient, right? So I asked Melinda to break it down for us.

Produce

“These days, most fresh fruits and veggies last a surprisingly long time in a refrigerator produce drawer. In a typical shopping trip, I’ll buy fresh strawberries, pears, apples, bananas, clementines, avocadoes, baby carrots, romaine lettuce, spinach, frozen strawberries or blueberries for smoothies, dried fruit (raisins, Craisins, fruit leather strips), a large jar of applesauce, and a couple cans of fruit.”

Melinda’s family eats the produce that spoilest the quickest, first—romaine hearts, spinach, bananas and strawberries. Refrigerated pears and avocados are next. Apples and clementines can “last nearly a whole month,” as can carrots. Melinda warns that you might have to rinse some slime off of the baby ones, further supporting her “waste not” philosophy.

She extends the life of produce by freezing it, too: “I use as much fresh spinach as I can and then freeze the rest to use in fruit smoothies, which become a nutritious staple at the end of the month.”

Toward the end of the month, the family also eats more dried and canned produce.

Meat

Melinda buys Costco’s pre-portioned fresh chicken breasts, which cost her about $20 for 12 breasts.

“Fresh tastes better than frozen. Even if I bring them home just to freeze them, they still taste better. [I buy] six packs, with two breasts per pack. I leave the whole six-pack in the fridge until the sell-by date. This gives me time to use what I’m going to, before freezing the rest, since using fresh meat takes less time than thawing it.

“On the sell-by date, I put two or three of the unused packs in the freezer, as they are. I use these whole, frozen breasts in crock pot recipes or Instant Pot recipes so that I don’t have to thaw or cut the meat before cooking. The remaining packs I open, cut the breasts into bite-sized pieces, or sometimes strips, and seal them—shaping the bag to lay flat and squeezing out excess air, two breasts per [Ziploc] bag.”

Melinda uses one bag per recipe, leaving it in the refrigerator to thaw out overnight, or placing it on the countertop to thaw out during the day.

For now, they don’t eat a lot of other meats at home, “Red meat is expensive right now, so we usually get [it] when we eat out. When it’s not so expensive, I’ll buy enough to make tacos once or twice a month. I also have a favorite crockpot dish I make almost every month that uses hot Italian sausage, which will keep for a long time in the fridge/freezer.”

Grains

Melinda buys four loaves of bread at Costco. She leaves one out and freezes the other three. She points out that they’re double-sealed, “so they don’t dry out”, and thaws them on the counter as the month progresses.

“Plenty, Consumption, Creativity”

Melinda’s family has become accustomed to the monthly ebb and flow of choices: “ [At the beginning of the month, it’s easy to] find something good to eat. The end of the month is typically when I start missing my Chobani yogurts, and it takes just a tad more effort to procure a snack. I deeply appreciate this cycle of plenty-consumption-creativity.”

She looks forward to treats, “Consumption occurs throughout the month, starting in the Costco parking lot as I dole out pretzel rings to my excited three-year-old.”

At the end of the month, they fall back on frozen and canned goods. Melinda keeps a list of their favorite recipes and snacks taped to the inside of her cupboard door, for inspiration. Check it out, and create your own!

8 Strategies You Can Steal

Have a Budget

Know how much you have (and want) to spend on groceries—there’s an app for that.

Keep a List

Melinda knows what her family likes, so she admits that a lot of her shopping is done by memory. Before she goes to the store, though, she checks her list: “I keep a running list as I run out of grocery items (food and non-food). When the beginning of the month rolls around, and I decide it’s time to hit the store, I consult my list, first.”

Be Organized

It’s easy for Melinda to quickly see exactly what she has in her kitchen. She keeps her cupboards organized and admits that, “My husband mocks me for facing all the food boxes so that the nutrition panel is toward the back—can you blame me for wanting to see the pretty, million-dollar marketing side?”

No, Melinda, this writer cannot. A+ for effort. And, with all of the pretty labels facing her, it’s probably a cinch to see what’s on offer for dinner, or what she needs to grab at the store.

Know What You Like

When you know what your go-to meals and snacks are, it’s much easier to plan a big grocery run. Melinda says, “Since minimizing grocery trips is a priority for me (not to mention, a money-saver), I’ve learned to see my grocery list in terms of a month-at-a-time.”

Not only does it cut down on the need for meal-planning and the time it takes to create your shopping list, knowing what you like helps you shop more quickly. Melinda can even guess her Costco bill ahead of the register!

“My magic formula for gauging my Costco bill as I’m shopping—and it’s proven pretty darn effective for me—is to count the number of items in my cart and multiply by ten dollars. In other words, twenty items in my cart usually comes to about $200.”

Focus on Nutrition

Cut down on junk food to make more room in your grocery budget for real fuel. Although she keeps a small supply of Riesens and homemade chocolate chip cookies in her freezer, Melinda says, “We live in a world where treats and junk food are practically thrown at us, so I don’t worry about having many of these things on hand at home”.

Plan the Day

Even Melinda will admit that, when you’re hungry, it can be tough to decide what to make for dinner. By deciding ahead of time what she’ll make for dinner, she has a much easier time sticking to her plan.

“When you’re already hungry (hangry), making dinner has almost no appeal over eating out. Decide as early in the day as possible what you’re going to make, at least. If you’re lucky to have a few minutes in the morning, go ahead and prep some of the ingredients or at least set them out on the counter with the recipe. You’ll thank yourself later for already having a plan to fall back on.”

Keep It Real

Melinda’s grocery budget revolves around her desire for flexibility. She only cooks “real” meals—the ones that take more than 30 minutes to prepare—once or twice a week. Her family eats leftovers or easy meals, and they leave room in the budget for pizza every Friday night.

For an easy dinner, her family enjoys grilled cheese sandwiches, frozen potstickers, Birdseye Garlic Chicken, chicken nuggets and pita pizzas (Melinda gets six pitas at Wal-Mart for $1 and adds sauce, cheese and pepperonis).

For lunches, Melinda and her kids eat a lot of sandwiches and wraps, accompanied by pretzels/crackers/chips, fruit, veggies and cookies. Her husband takes leftovers to work, and has a $50/month budget that allows him to eat out once or twice a week.

Be Engaged

Keep your eyes open for sales and new ways to shave a buck off of your grocery bill—even with her solid grocery budgeting skills, Melinda made time to attend our food budget workshop!

Plus, so that her family won’t get tired of the same thing all of the time, Melinda keeps her eyes open for new recipes. One of her favorite places for inspiration is melskitchencafe.com.

Words of Encouragement

If your current mode of operation is light-years from Melinda’s, try adopting one or two of her strategies to start with. Once you find your rhythm, like with all things, it just gets to be second-nature. Melinda says, “I really don’t do anything special or extreme. Balance, purposeful living, knowing myself/my family, and thoughtful decision-making are the highlights of my method.”

And, if you want a little inspiration (and a pinch of tough-love), she says this, “[Cooking at home is] cheap. Like, really cheap. The possibilities and flavors are endless. And, eat your leftovers. For people who hate leftovers, make better leftovers … “

Do you have a knack for eating on a budget that you’d like to share? Email me at [email protected]

Your Next Step

Budgeting is not restrictive. You won’t be spending less, you’ll be spending right. So what do you have to lose? Except all that debt and stress?