One of our budget categories that seems to get out of control easily is groceries! It surprises me how one extra trip in a week can throw my budget wildly out of wack. The grocery budget is one of the few categories I can decrease easily with better management, so I’ve found that having some tricks for keeping under control are a must.
My shopping method has been honed over years of poor college student living, followed by unemployment. These are my top three tips for feeding our family on a fixed budget every month!
1. Have a schedule
I plan a shopping trip every Monday. I used to shop every two weeks, but as my kids have gotten older and our health choices have changed, I’ve found one week to be a good fit for us.
Monday is my shopping day. If I find something on Tuesday that I missed, it has to wait all the wait until next Monday. This is the family policy.
The only exception to the shopping schedule are unexpected events (if you invite me to dinner last minute I’m still running to the store to bring flowers!).
The reason having a schedule helps us keep our budget is because I price everything out before my shopping trip, and because I only buy whats on my list (more on those things later). I have found that I, personally, tend to pick up extras when I go on un-scheduled shopping trips.
In addition, having a scheduled shopping trip helps me prepare physically – never shopping hungry or thirsty, for example, is a great way to avoid impulse buys. I typically shop in the morning so that I don’t look for ways to get out of dinner either. When I shop after 2 pm, the frozen pizza isle gets a little too tempting.
2. Take a list
I try to never shop without a list. For a long time, this meant a physical, written list on a piece of paper. Now I tend to have the list on my phone or in my head. I’ve had seven years to practice my discipline and avoid impulse buys, and having a list is my greatest asset.
Often, I may see a new product or something else I want. I will keep a new list at the bottom of my shopping list, which are “grocery options” for next week. Basically, I write them down so I remember them and then I can add them to my grocery list for the next week if we really want them or need them. Otherwise, I can think about them when I’m not surrounded by the store marketing and think about if I really need them (I’m looking at you, birthday cake oreos).
Having a list is hard at first, especially if you’re new to meal planning. Once you get started, it gets easier to anticipate your family’s needs each week. Shopping with a list helps ensure that you know what is coming into your house and why it is there. For us, having a list helps keep lots of junk food out of our house. We are more intentional about snacks and tend to keep trail mix, nuts, and fruit handy instead of bags of chips. It’s easier to do this with a list because branding for junk food is incredibly persuasive.
Besides just having items on a list, I usually have each item priced out so I know I’m keeping each purchase in our allotted grocery budget.
3. Price it out
When we move to a new area, I keep a price booklet with me. In it, I track the prices of my most commonly purchased items at all the local stores. This has two main benefits – first, I know which stores have the best prices.
Our grocery staples are cheapest at Sam’s Club and Walmart. I know that because I shopped at every other store, from Target to Costco to Aldi, during our first three months in Texas and recorded all the prices in my price booklet! While not every item is cheaper at Walmart, most items are. Rather than drive from store to store from the cheapest price, I prefer to limit my driving time and keep my shopping trips to those two stores.
(I should note that Target prices are very competitive, but I found myself splurging so often at Target that I stopped shopping there. The dollar section gets me every time.)
The second benefit is that I am very familiar with the cost of our typical groceries. I can estimate the cost within a dollar most times, so I can quickly add up our grocery list. This is important because I can decide if we need to take a few items off, or if we are under-budget and can stock up on a few extra things.
Having a good handle on our weekly grocery costs helps me balance out our spending over the month, so we don’t front load each month stocking up on paper towels or pasta.
In my opinion, store pickup is a game changer from a budgeting standpoint. Not only can you see the price of each item you want, you can see your total before you order! You can pick it up and avoid impulse buys altogether! In our area, store pickup at Walmart and Sams is FREE so it was a no-brainer for me.
I still keep a paper list, but I also add items we need to my shopping cart on the pickup app as they run out throughout the week. On Sunday evenings, after our budget meeting, I scan through the list. I add any additional items, or remove unnecessary items to keep us under budget. I check the total for my Sams and Walmart orders to make sure its in the budget range, then place my orders for Monday morning.
Compared to shopping at seven months pregnant with two little boys in tow, store pickup is just too easy to pass up and it’s become my primary shopping method.
When we lived in Utah, we did all of our shopping at Smith’s. We participated in the store rewards program to get points off on Gas. We got “member prices” on groceries and discounted gas. Win-win!
Then and now, we also pick a credit card to use for grocery shopping that gets extra cash back. The card I use for grocery shopping gets 2% back on groceries instead of the normal 1% on everything that most cards use. We are keeping our eyes peeled for something with a higher rate, since groceries are such a big chunk of our monthly expenses. I wrote more about using credit card rewards here.
Grocery store gift cards are also our favorite way to redeem our Swagbucks. I wrote a whole post about how I use Swagbucks to help us save a little extra, and this was a HUGE help for us when our income was lower. Swagbucks also has coupons you can print and redeem for money off plus a Swagbucks incentive, but I’m notoriously bad at forgetting to use coupons so I haven’t tried this.
Our grocery budget
Now that I’ve given you my tips, here is how our actual grocery budget works. In general, I stick to the ideal that $100 per person, per month is sufficient. For our family of four, that means $400 a month. That said, our actual budget ends up being closer to $450 a month. In my budget spreadsheet, we plan for $450 a month in groceries, but our goal is to spend $400.
Our grocery budget includes all of our household items, like toilet paper, cleaning products, and personal care items. With that in mind, I feel like the extra $50 a month is just the right amount to accommodate those needs for our family right now.
We also have a baby on the way, and we tend to add another $50-100 a month to the grocery budget for diapers and wipes. After the baby comes, our family grocery budget will probably be about $600 a month, but my goal is to keep it under $550.
Since I shop weekly, I give myself a grocery budget of $100 each week. Some weeks I go a little over, but having the goal of $100 keeps me frugal and helps us stay under our $450 cap.
During our unemployment phase, I cut our grocery bill dramatically and we only spent $50 a week. Our meals were not super nutritious or varied, but we did what we had to to get by. I learned so much from living on the bare minimum that living on twice that felt easy for a while. Then my oldest turned five and started eating like crazy, and we are feeling the strain again.
My point is you can probably buy less food than you realize and still have plenty to eat, but everyone’s family consumption is different. Be conscious about what your buying and why by using a meal plan and a grocery list. Avoid impulse buys by doing store pickup or scheduling your shopping trip at a good time. Doing these things can help you manage your pantry and your budget more effectively!