3 Tips That Will Truly Help You to Manage Your Grocery Budget Better

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Once upon a time, there was this girl who was very careful with her budget. So careful that her husband trusted her implicitly, and she carefully maintained her grocery budget with cash each month, so as not to overspend. She was so insistent that this method worked, she even wrote profusely on the topic.

This worked well for several years. Then this girl discovered that upon returning home from an overseas trip, she was pregnant with her 4th child. Then two homestay students arrived, fatigue and nausea ensued, and general chaos was reigning in most areas of her life as she sought to keep up with everything. Foolishly, one of the things she dropped was her careful cash management system. And didn’t pick it up again for 4 months.

Until this month. After being informed by her ever-loving husband that she had gone over budget for 4 months in a row, particularly so this past month, she has learned her lesson well. Her wallet once again contains cash and she has a written list, detailing what she has spent and what she intends to spend and the balance of her budget.

If she sticks to the plan, she and her grocery budget may just live happily ever after.

3 Tips That Will Really, Truly Help You to Stick to a Budget

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Image by Images of Money

1. Use cash.

I can’t say it strongly enough. Cash is tangible, it hurts to pass it over to the cashier, it’s beyond embarrassing to get to the till and realize you don’t have enough, and when it’s gone, baby it’s gone.

Even if your family does the rest of your budget online (as we primarily do, through debit cards, online payments and a budgeting software system), make your grocery budget cash!

Just go to the bank at the beginning of each month and take out what you’ve got budgeted for that entire month (usually I leave about $25 in the bank, just to cover any small trips my husband might do to grab something random, because otherwise I tend to overlook those and go slightly over budget). Use your choice of a special cash wallet, a basic envelope or baggies system, and divy it up as you prefer (by the week, or kept whole).

For those who are really, really adamant about not using cash, I suppose you could use a debit card and keep a meticulous record of each and every purchase you make, which you have with you ever time you go to shop. It’s not ideal, though, in my experience.

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Image by Heather McCall

2. Before you spend any of it, determine how that money will be spent.

At the beginning of the month, after I make my first meal plan, I like to sit down and determine what I will spend where, and how much is left for remaining purchases. For example, here’s my money breakdown this month:

Budgeted Amount: $400

*Note that it would have been $450, but my husband had already spent $30 the day that I wrote up this budget buying raw milk and cheese, and I’m leaving $20 in the bank account for unaccounted for purchases.*

Azure Standard Natural Foods Co-op order: $170

I make this order monthly, and it usually varies between $80-$180, depending on what we need.

Extra Foods (local grocery store): $88

I had budgeted to spend about $90 before I went, based on the fact that this store gives a 15% discount the first Sunday/Monday of every new month if you spend $100 or more. I brought a calculator and tracked exactly what I bought, and the total came to $103 and then $88 after the $15 discount!

Ennis Meats: $60

This is my meat/deli store out in the country, where I purchase grass fed and free-range meat products, including nitrate-free sausages and that type of thing. I had planned on spending $40-$50, but they had cases of the turkey breakfast sausage we like for a good deal, so I splurged and bought one, but I did so knowing that my budget could handle it.

We had already started the month with some vegetables, and a ton of free local apples and pears (from gleaning in the park, and a friend’s yard), so I skipped the produce store for now. We also already have a freezer full of grass-fed beef purchased earlier this summer, plus 11 pastured chickens that I bought off my mom last month.

Budgeted money remaining: $90

I won’t shop this week but will try to use up everything that I have. After that, I will do a big produce shop for the rest of the month (probably $35-$40, and I might spend another $20-30 on a case of pears for canning). The produce will last because I use up those things that go bad faster first, saving the hardy fruits and vegetables for later, plus I’m using something called a Blu Apple, which helps to keep produce fresh for longer, reducing waste and trips to the store.

The rest will go towards a smaller shop at my local store for things that we run out of or need to fill in the ingredients list for my meal plans. This will include fresh eggs, I’m sure and a few other random grocery items (and if anyone knows a great source of pastured eggs for a decent price in the Fraser Valley, I’d love to know it- I lost my source of eggs this winter).

If I have extra (which is rare, but it happens sometimes), I will save it up towards future meat purchases. Otherwise, I try to set aside meat money at the beginning of the month, except this month when I was already buying meat and needed a large co-op order.

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Image by ilovebutter

3. Go with a detailed list.

Not just a list like this:

  • chicken
  • broccoli
  • pasta
  • milk

But a list like this:

  • 1 large whole, free-range chicken ($3.99 per lb, so approx. $15-$20 depending on size)
  • 2 large heads broccoli ($3)
  • 4 packages brown rice pasta ($12)
  • 4 half-gallons raw milk ($20)

Now, you don’t have to estimate the prices like I do (and yes, those are estimations, but they’re very educated guesses because I pay attention to prices). I realize it adds time to your planning. I’ve come to feel that it’s worthwhile, however, because it allows me to guesstimate a ballpark figure of how much I will spend at each store on each trip.

If I’m going to hit up 3 stores while I’m out, I will have a list that tells me I expect to spend:

  • $90 at Extra Foods
  • $40-50 at Ennis Meats
  • $35 at 2 EE’s (my produce market/farm)

This way, I can pay attention to how things are adding up as they enter my cart. I will know if I’m overspending before I even get to the counter and I can make a decision to remove something if necessary. Or, if I have underspent at 1 or 2 stores by the time I get to the produce market, I might be able to splurge and stock up on a sale on organic potatoes, or a discounted case of tomatoes to turn into sauce, or simply on an expensive veggie or fruit that we love but rarely buy.

Not only will a list like this help you to be very cognizant of the money that you are spending (before you even hand it over), but it will keep you on track with your purchases. If fresh salmon or mandarin oranges or fair trade chocolate weren’t on your list, then unless you know you have the extra room in the budget, you’ll rethink them.

You’ll also get through the store faster, particularly if you use a list that groups like items together. The list I use is divided by baking items, diary, produce, cleaning, toiletry, canned goods, etc. and it really does help to streamline my time in the store. Having 3 young children who get antsy pretty quickly while shopping, this is invaluable.

It really does work.

This month, for the first time in 4 months, I am on track to finish right on budget, with plenty of food stocked up in the freezer and pantry to go into next month. Can I just tell you that it feels really good?

I know that managing your budget like this requires a bit more thought, more time, more effort.

However, if keeping your food expenses affordable and finding ways to shave down your budget are goals that you have, these techniques will ensure that you stay on track and move steadily towards those financial goals!

How do you manage your grocery budget? What practical things that you do make the biggest difference for you? If you’re struggling with the budget, which areas are hardest for you?

Top image by Editor B

About Stephanie Langford

Stephanie Langford has a passion for sharing ideas and information for homemakers who want to make healthy changes in their homes, and carefully steward all that they've been given. She has written three books geared to helping families live more naturally and eat real, whole foods, without being overwhelmed, without going broke and with simple meal planning. She is the creator of Keeper of the Home.

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Comments

  1. I am just curious how you pay for your azure order. I thought it had to be paid online, so do you account for that and take out the leftover of your budget in cash from the bank? Or can you pay it in cash?

  2. I would also really love to hear what you order at Azure Standard, I’m trying to decide if I should start ordering through them and just give up going to the grocery store entirely (we get all our meat, produce and dairy at the farmer’s market pretty much) Thank you!

  3. Another really helpful tip is to keep a food diary. Make a list of the price of the products you buy, and then review it over time. Sometimes the price of something gradually creeps up without you noticing, and this allows you to compare prices across different shops etc easily, or swap to a cheaper alternative.

  4. Hi Stephanie. Have you ever shared what you buy at Azure? I often wonder if there’s other things I could be getting there and just don’t think about.

  5. Thanks for motivating me again. We just had to replace our furnace (it was old and a safety and health hazard) and it was a painful bite out of our bank account – leading me to try and assess if we could cut costs to help rebuild those savings a little. I have been trying to transition to whole, organic foods but with just the two of us we can’t eat through most bulk produce before it goes bad. So I try to walk a fine line between getting good deals but keeping in mind that we can’t eat or store some larger quantities. We use a spreadsheet in Excel to budget from month to month but I’m always trying to tweak it. After the furnace fiasco I decided we’d try to go from $325 down to $200 this month (with $50 for non-food household items) and I’m still not sure if we’ll be able to stay under. I make our own whole wheat sandwich bread and try to avoid processed pre-packaged foods but it somehow still adds up – halfway through the month I’ve spend about $130 already…I do use debit instead of cash, but meticulously track what I’m spending and go through the receipts to breakdown the costs when I enter it in the spreadsheet. I do a weekly meal plan from which I make the grocery list after checking what we have in the pantry and freezer, but I should probably try to move to a 2-week shopping plan and see if that is helpful. I like your method of detailed lists though – if I’m vague I tend to pick up an item or two that wasn’t originally on the list. I also agree with a previous commenter that shopping when you are hungry is a budget disaster waiting to happen!

  6. Emily @Random Recycling says:

    I love the suggestion of eating through what you have for a couple of weeks to afford a larger bulk order. I have not been thrilled with the options at Costco, so I think online might be the wat to go. I want to reduce my packaging consumption and I feel like many bulk stores just package three items together and call it bulk. While I like the bulk section at Whole foods, it can add up very fast if you don’t pay attention to how much is on the scale.

  7. These are great tips! I take a somewhat different approach. I plan my meals, and then order my groceries online from a local store that allows customers to pick up already-bagged groceries for a fee of $6. I have a disability, and my husband is a notorious over-spender, so the $6 is more than worth it! Plus, you can just search for the next item on your list, as opposed to walking the aisles and being tempted to impulse shop. You can see the total price as you add items, so staying with the budget is very easy. The store I use is Hy-Vee, but I’m sure there are others.

  8. Pregnancy has definitely caused problems in the food budget! I wasn’t able to eat much for 7 months and now that I can I’m so pregnant and tired (baby is almost here) that I can’t cook much. We started to buy a lot of prepared foods since I couldn’t cook and my husband works full time. Things were definitely cheaper when I was making every meal from scratch, all our bread, tortillas, crackers, and always using dried rather than canned beans. I can’t wait to get back to it.

    Also, my husband seems to spend way more at the grocery store than I do. Part of the problem is that when I put “shredded mozzarella” on the list so we can have lasagna, he comes back with small bags of organic mozzarella which costs 4 times as much as the normal store brand bag because he really wants me and the baby to be healthy. It’s very sweet but not sustainable for us. I think I’ve talked him down to only buying milk and the dirty dozen organic by default. Also he is very sweet and often comes home with treats like chocolate milk or ice cream. Thoughtful but not something we need to spend grocery money on on a regular basis :-)

    We are fortunate to have chickens and we eat a lot of eggs. I think meal planning will help (although it will have to wait until after the baby is born). I need to get better at using things up. For example I know we have a ton of bulgar in the freezer I got in bulk a year ago but we never eat it! I think grain salads will feature prominently in our future.

    • @annie, Nus

      Just a tip for the bulgur, if you have access to a grain mill, you can make bulgur flour! It works great & you end up using slightly less because it’s so dense. :)

  9. Those are great tips! I actually do most of them but I say that because I haven’t seen those around. I don’t actually do cash, but I will tell you why it works – I only shop once per pay period, and I budget each paycheck separately. So by the time payday hits, I’ve already scheduled any applicable bills to be paid and I track everything down to the penny. The grocery budget amount goes onto the grocery card (separate checking account) and then I go shopping a day or two later for everything I need for the next two weeks. For some reason, mentally it’s a lot easier for me to spend cash than it is to spend money with a card, probably because a stack of cash looks like a stack of cash, but a quick check of my online balance is kind of a solid reminder.

    But I think the biggest moneysavers are the fact that I only shop once every two weeks, and also what you said about make a DETAILED list. I do the same, and I divide it up by sections according to the route I go through my store, so I’m less likely to miss something. Makes it go quicker and I know I won’t get too much or too little of something that I need for a specific recipe. I do plan 2 weeks worth of meals at a time (again, something that is already done the day before we even get paid) so I have a pretty good idea of the exact amounts of ingredients that I need.

    The only other time I shop is when I have extra and the local produce stand is having a good sale… last week I picked up a 20lb box of apples for $5.95… can’t beat that, and I couldn’t pass up that opportunity.

  10. Great set of tips. We ALWAYS overspend on food around here. I am horrible at budgeting and we constantly overbuy. I have tried meal plans but I do find them really hard to stick with :S I just never seem to have the time to either make everything or am never prepared…perhaps one day I will be!

  11. Have you looked into the phone ap “Out of Milk”? It’s a grocery list/pantry list/to do list ap, but the awesome part is that it keeps track of prices! You put the price in for each item one time, and if the price changes it will keep a list of the historical prices. It also tracks tax and coupons, so when you make up your grocery list it will tell you exactly how much you are going to spend. So it’s a list, price book, calculator, everything. My grocery bills are so much more exact since using it, and if you keep your pantry list updated, you’ll also know what you have, so no question at the store if you need more oregano, or whatever. I’m not affiliated with them or anything, it has just helped my budgeting so much!

  12. Hey ya’ll, I just wanted to provide some encouragement for those of you who think, “I could never go to the grocery store just one time a month.” As of right now I can’t either. My hubby and I are living overseas and do not have a car. So I go to the grocery store 2 or 3 times a week. We do use the cash system. It is great for us! I was a math major in college, so I love numbers, proportions, and all things budget :) I have learned that you can go to the grocery store 3 times a week and not overspend (keep in mind that I have to carry everything home with me). I do have to stop in the store sometimes and pray for self-control :) It was a bit of an adjustment the first few months we were here, but now it is not bad. You can do this! Find the system that works best for you and do it! Stephaine, thanks for being real and for the great tips! I love this blog and its community.

  13. This is such a great set of tips – just what I need because I’ve also been over budget for the last few months. I hadn’t come across number 3 before, so am going to give that a try.

  14. @Terri Whitaker, I’ve been researching the GAPS diet because my daughter has food sensitivities, but I am thinking we may have to save up and wait. Stephanie said (in another comment I left on another post she wrote) that she spent about 20% more with GAPS. My other thought is to just do GAPS with my daughter, but I am afraid she will not understand why my husband and I can eat rice, pasta, etc. when she can’t…

  15. Stephanie, I loved the link you included with the story you wrote about your debt (you wrote it in 2008) and how you learned to be frugal! What a testimony!

    My husband and I are currently in the Dave Ramsey Financial Peace University class, and I am working on using cash more than our debit cards (We haven’t used credit cards since we got married, but I still don’t think twice as much about debit cards as I do cash.)

    I get a lot of our produce on the marked down racks at our local healthfood store (like Whole Foods but locally-owned with local produce, meat, etc.). Tonight, I went to the grocery store with just a few things and just a little money. I found 2 whole free-range/no antibiotic chickens marked almost half off as well as organic lettuce and herbs marked half off! Then, as I was checking out, a $5 off your order coupon spit out, and the cashier let me use if on my groceries! The Lord is so good to provide!!

  16. Very nicely written. I too make a note of the prices of items in my grocery list before shopping and it helps me in guessing how much I will be spending on that trip. Its like writing down the expense on paper before actually spending it. We are two adults at home but our grocery bill reaches $400-$475 every month. Everything has become so expensive, and I am not even buying convenience items. But I try to save money in other areas like clothes, entertainment, etc.

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