My family has always lived on a pretty tight budget for groceries. We’ve had such big financial goals, it made sense to cut back where we could. But I haven’t felt deprived. I think we eat very well.
And, to be honest, I thought our grocery budget was typical. It was normal to me because it’s what we’ve always done. But then I told some of my coworkers that we live on $298 a month for groceries for our family of 5, and they freaked out! I realized that our situation wasn’t as normal as I thought.
A Few Caveats
I know when you start putting numbers in the headlines of blog posts, it gets attention. But it also tends to make folks uneasy, because no one wants to feel like they’re spending too much, especially when they’re already trying so hard to cut back!
The key idea to keep in mind is that the amount you spend on groceries is totally based on your priorities. I also want to acknowledge that it might not be possible for everyone to budget this little for something so essential.
I don’t want to shame anyone! What I do want to do is offer some ideas to those who do want to find ways to cut down on their grocery spending. (And I’ve spent enough time in the YNAB Community to know that’s a lot of people!)
Here’s a few caveats to put my situation in perspective. First, our kids are little. I’ve got a five-year-old, three-year-old, and a six-month-old who is so cute it hurts, but she only just started eating real food (pureed avocado and banana is the current favorite). Second, we live in a low cost-of living area. Third, we also budget $200 a month for dining out, so we’re just under $500 a month for food in total. Fourth, our grocery budget is just for food. Other stuff we get at the grocery store (cleaning supplies, diapers, etc.) are budgeted for separately.
Last, there are trade-offs if you want to cut back on groceries. It will cost you some time and effort and, of course, you might not be able to buy everything you want! More on that later.
It’s All About that Meal Plan
Meal planning comes up just about every time we talk about reducing spending on groceries. Because the truth is, if you want to really cut back, it’s ALL about meal planning. It’s just like budgeting. You’re not going to align your money with your priorities without a money plan. The same is true for food! You’ve got to make a food plan so you can stay within budget at the store, reduce waste and, most importantly, so you can make decisions when you’re thinking straight, not when you’re starving after a hard day at work!
So here’s how my family plans meals. Like most good things in life, it starts with a spreadsheet. Every week, we decide what we’re going to eat for dinner. We typically plan for three dinners made from scratch every week. The other days are covered by left-overs (also planned), a frozen pizza (most weeks), and an evening of dining out. Breakfasts and lunches are mostly the same every week, so we just plan to restock on what we need for those meals.
Then, we make a Google Sheet listing everything we need to buy at the store based on our meal plan. (Alright, this part is mostly up to my wife, Katelynn, who has an amazing analytical mind and really should be running the country). Most of our list is the same (supplies for lunches and breakfasts) and some of it changes every week (supplies for the three dinners we’re going to make from scratch each week and items that need to be restocked).
Our spreadsheet has a column for the estimated cost of each item. That gives us a total of what we expect we’re going to spend that week. If the estimate is too high, we prioritize. Maybe skip the fancy cheese this week. Or maybe cook a less expensive meal for one of our dinners. If this sounds a lot like budgeting, that’s because it is! It’s a very specific budget for a very specific expense.
The more you do this kind of meal planning, the better you get at estimating the cost of each item. When we started doing this, we were wrong a lot and had to roll with the punches as best we could. But now we’re eight years in, and Katelynn can tell you the cost of just about anything we would ever buy at the store down to the quarter (I told you she was good).
Lastly, our spreadsheet has a column called “Difference.” This is where it gets interesting. That column helps us ensure we actually spend pretty close to our estimated cost while we’re at the store. We have the Google Sheet up on our phone while we’re shopping. If we estimated an item’s cost incorrectly, we enter the difference in that column.
So … bummer, they’re out of the cheap bread this week. We’ve got to pay 4 dollars instead of 2.25. We’ll enter -1.75 in the Difference column. We’ll put in a positive amount if the item cost less than we thought. When we’re getting ready to check out, we look at that column total.
“Oh, we’re 4 dollars over budget. We’ll put back a couple things.”
“Oh, we’re 6 dollars under budget. Blueberries for days!”
Like I said, meal planning takes some time and effort, but it yields big results! I’m sure this might feel daunting to some, so I encourage you to start small (maybe just focus on a couple dinners) and give yourself lots of grace. Just like with budgeting, you’ll get better at it the more you do it.
More Pro Tips! And Some Trade-Offs
Meal planning is the main event, but there’s a whole lot of other things you can do to cut back on grocery spending. Here’s a bunch of ideas from my own experience.
Don’t be afraid of damaged, ugly, or overripe produce. Many stores will have a special section for produce that many shoppers won’t buy. You can save some serious money here. For example, you know you plan to make guacamole this afternoon. Why pay full price, when your perfect almost-expired avocado is waiting for you in the bargain bin? It’s like that sweet, older dog at the animal shelter. It needs a home, and you know it’s meant to be.
Prep your meals ahead of time as much as you can. If you feel like you’re too busy or too tired to cook at the end of a hard workday, try prepping your meals on the weekend. This may be the key skill you need to find time to cook at home despite your busy lifestyle.
Find ways to reduce waste. When you throw food away, you’re throwing money away, so here’s a lightning round of ways to cut back on waste. First, do your research on “sell-by” and expiration dates. Google is your friend here. The date on the package means a lot of different things, and it’s often perfectly safe to eat food you may think is expired. For old leftovers, use common sense and trust your nose. ?
Second, include leftovers in your meal plan. Most of us don’t eat everything we cook, and if we don’t plan to get to those left-overs, they often end up forgotten in the back of the fridge.
Third, keep an inventory. I recommend you keep a written, not-in-your-head inventory of everything in your freezer (especially if you have a separate chest freezer in the basement). As for the rest, make it a point to look through your fridge every day. You may have forgotten about that left-over takeout from Tuesday—perfect for lunch tomorrow. It’s also a good idea to clean out your fridge at least every couple of weeks. You’ll have more room for stuff you’re really going to eat by getting rid of anything that has gone bad (if there is any!).
Try shopping at multiple stores. You can often save money by comparing prices and coupons. Visit your farmer’s market early in the morning. Sometimes it’s more expensive, but you can very often get cheaper, local produce than what you get at the supermarket. (It will definitely be tastier, anyway.) Run by a bakery or discount bread store where you can buy bread that’s just a little closer to its sell-by date. And if you have an Aldi in your town, game over! They don’t always have everything we need, but it’s a game-changer.
Cut back on alcohol and soft drinks. I may have shocked some of you with this one. But with our grocery budget, I’m sure you already guessed we don’t buy much alcohol. That stuff is expensive. One day, we may bring it back into the budget, but it’s not a priority right now. Same goes for soft drinks or really any drink besides milk and coffee (actually, we’re tea drinkers).
Organic…meh. “Organic” can mean a lot of things, so do your research on organic labels and decide what’s important to you. Our rule of thumb is if it’s produce that you eat the skin (apples, plums, pears), organic is the way to go. Otherwise, normal is fine.
Speaking of produce, buy in season. I know we all crave watermelon in January, but it’s going to cost you dearly (if you can even get it). Buy your produce in season. It’s healthier and a lot cheaper.
When it comes to restaurants, quantity over quality. This is a matter of preference, so take it with a grain of Himalayan sea salt. But when I eat out, I’m mostly looking for some tasty food and a chance to take a break from leftovers and cooking. That means my dining out budget doesn’t include much fancy steak. Get something good, but less expensive, and you can eat out more often.
How About You?
I hope this has given you some ideas on ways to cut back on groceries! Remember, budgeting is all about your priorities and cutting back on spending in this area does require some sacrifices. But if it means you can achieve some big financial goals, go for it!
Do you have ideas on meal planning or some hacks to cut back on groceries? Maybe some tasty, cheap recipes? Don’t keep it to yourself! Share your tips with us and other YNABers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!