What’s Helping Me Conquer Our Runaway Grocery Budget

What's helping me conquer our runaway grocery budget - Keeper of the Home

I bet you’d never guess the tools I find most useful when it comes to sticking with and maximizing our grocery budget.

You might think it has to do with meal planning. Or perhaps a kitchen appliance like a grain grinder or crockpot. Maybe it’s planting a garden or using my farmer’s market. Or finding ways to get great bulk prices.

Actually, it’s so much simpler than that. Almost too simple and it barely seems worth sharing EXCEPT that I so often forget to do this, and every time I do it, I’m reminded again how powerful it is.

And I need powerful right now, because since returning from our trip, our grocery expenses have skyrocketed. We’ve jumped up from being able to maintain about a $500 monthly budget, with which I had to be intentional but we ate really well and bought high quality foods, up to an average of $900 per month. In just over a year.

Of course, there are many factors at play here. Our youngest was an exclusively breastfed baby, and he’s now a 2 year old with a hefty appetite and chunky thighs. Our other three kids have grown as well, and their appetites have kept pace. We’ve been eating mostly gluten and/or grain free, which means less reliance on cheaper foods like grains bought in bulk, which fill up tummies faster. When we left, we used up or gave away our entire pantry and freezer stash that I had worked hard for years to build up. Not to mention, food prices have increased while we were away.

So there are reasons. Real ones. I get why we’re forking out more for our food these days. It’s driving me crazy, but I get it.

I’m working on a long-term plan to cut costs. It’s funny, because I sort of wrote the book on this subject (no, literally, I wrote a book about how to eat healthy food for less) and I’ve had to go back and re-read my own words, remind myself of the strategies that I had been implementing for so many years to make our budget work. Some of it I had forgotten. Some of it I still knew and wasn’t implementing, because we recently moved to a new town and I’m still sourcing out the best places to even shop right now. And some of it I was doing, but not carefully enough.

But what I reminded myself of the other night is that a big part of saving money is so much simpler than we think it is.

It requires three little things:

  • paper
  • pen
  • calculator (I use my phone)

See, this month we decided to just force ourselves to stick to $700. We’d like to ultimately get it even lower, but that will take time, re-establishing a pantry and freezer bulk stash, and possibly, going back on grains (we’ll see). For now, we’re just taking baby steps to do what we can, since summer is historically a lower-income season for us with our family businesses.

Well, I needed to do a big grocery shop the other night, keeping in mind that we still had 2 weeks left in the month. I looked at our $700 budget and saw that after an online order I had just placed for more almond flour and stevia, I was down to about $236 for the month. Yikes.

Here’s what I did: I wrote out a quick list of meal ideas that we could eat. Nothing fancy, just things we like and that I know I can make easily. Then I wrote out a list of foods that would make a lot of simple meals, that we enjoy, that I know to be mostly frugal choices (ie. cheaper cuts of meat, adding in some lentils, shopping from bulk bins when possible, and no just-for-fun extras). I guesstimated what those items would cost, so that I had a working total before I even set foot in the store. I was aiming to spend no more than $125, to leave us with a remaining $100 for produce and fresh dairy or a bit of extra meat to help see us through the month’s end.

Then, I went to the store, list in hand, and I pulled out my calculator. As I went along, I put items in my cart. Each time, I stopped and added the cost of those items onto my calculator. I kept a running tally the entire time.

I spent extra time looking really carefully at the meat section to find the cheapest cuts and the things I thought I could stretch into the most meals possible (we’re still looking for local farmers to buy higher quality meat from since we moved). I bought the produce that worked out to the best per-pound prices instead of being picky. I found some marked down produce and picked that up.

I made a few hard choices to put things back or buy less of something else so that I could buy more of something really practical. And I never let my $$ goal leave my mind.

calculator and receipt_

As I walked up to the till, I was pretty sure I had $136 worth of food in my cart. I had decided the extra $11 was acceptable because I was coming home with more meat than I had expected to buy, which would give us more meals, so it was worth it.

When I checked out, my total came to $136.45.

And that was the best feeling I’d had in a long time. As I packed up my food haul and drove back to our house that night, I knew I’d been faithful with what I’d had. I had spent carefully. Wisely. Intentionally. And now I could go home and make a workable, delicious meal plan, knowing that I had the food I needed to make it happen.

No extra items made their way into my cart. No splurge buys. No guesstimating that I was spending sort of the right amount and then getting to the till and realizing I had gone $50 over (how many times has that happened? Too many to count!).

All because I planned it out, and kept track of what went into my cart. It’s sooooo simple. It feels silly to even write a blog post about.

But it’s true and it works.

Meal planning and working out a carefully planned, carefully executed food budget are two of the things I feel like I go on and on about. Have you gotten tired of me yet? :)

If this topic interests you, you might also want to read:

What I Would Feed my Family on a Monthly Budget of $250 (granted, prices would have gone up by now, as I wrote this about 2 years ago, but the principles are all the same)

How I Would Improve my $250 Budget Even More

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. Kristin S says:

    Such a timely post! Definitely working on this right now! One thing that is helpful for me, a homeschooling momma with 5 little girls, has been to do online shopping. I live in the Southeast USA, and we have a local Harris Teeter. Now, they certainly don’t have the best prices, and I can’t grab the markdowns by doing this, but I have actually really saved money and sanity by doing my shopping in my pjs in my recliner on Sunday nights after the kids are in bed, and driving up on Monday morning to the store and having them deliver the groceries to my car. So even though I am paying a little more for groceries, I can watch the cost as I shop, and don’t impulse buy either! Its a win-win for me! And it forces me to plan!

  2. Jenni J. says:

    We are a family of 8. 5 of those 8 are boys, and 2 of those boys are preteens. Our food budget got so out of control (think $1500+) we had to start locking up the fridge and pantry… :/ Is there a percentage of our net income that we should use to calculate what is reasonable for our family size? And in your grocery budget do you include toiletries and household upkeep items?

  3. Great thoughts! We have been doing this as well. I just became a SAFM, so money is tighter. Our food budget is $400/month for a family of three (including toiletries & baby has several food allergies), but I am challenging myself to keep it closer to $300. This month I have been utilizing the “notes” app on my iPhone to keep track of every purchase & totaling at the end of each week. Doing this has really held me accountable and made me think twice before making purchases on a whim. Just a few days left in this month & I am really pleased at seeing how well we have stuck to the budget!!

  4. This post really is coming at a great time for me. Just this week, I’ve really faced the fact that our budget has been blown out of the water for too long now (my baby is five months) and I’m no longer letting myself pretend that I don’t have the time to make some changes. So, back to meal planning for me. And back to using my calculator on my phone like you (I used to do this too).
    It’s crazy just how quickly money can be spent on food when you are trying to eat well but not paying enough attention!

  5. Thank you for this post! This is something I have always struggled with. I need to work on my food-budgeting attitude as I always end up feeling like a “crazy couponer”, rather than satisfied that I can stick to a budget.

  6. This was such a great reminder! I, too, am in a similar boat. My youngest is now putting food away at the pace of an adult man (he’s ONLY 10 months old!), and I’m eating a ton extra to keep up with him nursing still. Plus, we don’t eat a lot of grains. We never have really. We just don’t like them. So the money seems to fly out of my hand at the checkout line much more quickly than I can stomach sometimes. I’m going to re-read your book and check out some of these links. Thanks for sharing! It’s always good to know we aren’t alone! :)

  7. This post is so timely. After a double diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes and Celiac disease last year, grains – and consequently all other forms of inexpensive, starchy foods like beans and potatoes – no longer work for our family, and our food budget has shot through the roof. Coupons don’t work well for fresh produce, so buying in bulk and gardening have been my go-to savings plans. However, we’re still struggling to keep our food budget in check! I found this post extremely motivating and uplifting. I feel like, “I CAN do this!!” (We have four spark plugs, too. :) ) Thank you for the great reminders, simple ideas, and words of encouragement!

  8. Lisette says:

    I use a spreadsheet program and use my receipts to track grocery prices. Then I transfer those prices to my shopping list so I know before I even leave the house what my total will be at the checkout. This helps with meal planning, too, since I can reference prices quickly and easily. We are on a $400/month grocery budget – this includes personal and cleaning/home supplies as well as food – so knowing my expenses to the penny is crucial.

  9. Although I am an outlier who tries to keep the grocery bill around $250/mo. These types of posts and the accompanying comments always make me wonder where those ridiculous statistics saying that Americans only spend 8-10% of their income on food come from. I am assuming most of you all are not making $7-10,000/mo! :)

    • Um, nope. Definitely NOT 7-10K per month. :) Also, I’m not American, I’m Canadian. Our cost of living and groceries is definitely higher than in most parts of the USA, so I know that makes a difference. But many families I know that try to eat really high quality, real food, spend more than 8-10%, for sure.

  10. I really appreciate your sharing this! It’s crazy how simple and helpful one change like this can be. It’s also crazy that I haven’t tried it! I will this week thanks to you.

  11. Allison says:

    So helpful…but can I do this with three kids along…? Maybe. Or maybe I’ll go alone at night.

    • You can, it’s just a little bit more, well, distracting. ;) But I’ve done it with my kiddos along, many times. However, now that I have four, I’ve come to prefer doing most of my shopping in the evenings, once they’ve gone to bed. It helps.

  12. Thanks for the inspiration. It is time to get back on track!
    A little off track, but are you using a lot of stevia in your baking? I use a liquid stevia in my coffee, but I haven’t baked with it yet.

  13. I just got done writing about our own runaway grocery budget (as well as our budget in general). It’s amazing what a difference simply paying attention makes. We are currently rent free and have noticed that simply having it in our head that we can “afford” whatever has had a very negative impact on our spending habits!

  14. Donna B says:

    I take a note pad with me and add up as I go. I round up to the next dollar on everything — 5.55 or 5.01 both go to $6. Since I start at produce (and I don’t always weigh bulk items), and depending on what I get, I automatically start at about $15 to $25 and have never gone over when using this method. It’s so satisfying when you get to the check out and see how well you’ve done keeping to your budget!

  15. Thank you for this post & your previous posts about taming the grocery budget. It’s giving me a lot to think about, as our grocery budget is way out of control & I would like to reclaim some of that money for house projects! :) I would love to know how you deal with snacks for the kids? I have 3 boys – 11, 8, & 18 months. They are ALWAYS hungry. I try to feed them lots of whole foods (especially fruits, veggies) and fill them at meal time, but it just never seems to be enough! Two of us are celiac, so we have to eat GF and my little guys has severe allergies to nuts, peanuts & sunflower seeds, so the protein butters are out too. Suggestions?

  16. I’m a relatively new wife and mom (married a year in March and we have a 4 1/2 month old son who is EBF so far so doesn’t eat groceries but does increase laundry!!). I was working up until the end of last year so I paid for groceries with “my money” and spent some time getting familiar with what things cost. When I quit work and we went down to hubby’s income only I started trying to be more careful with our budget. I’ve been using a grocery app on my iPhone and it has been INVALUABLE. Because I can keep track of prices of everything in it and compare to several different stores (if I shop at Aldi’s or HEB I can keep those prices separate and then see who is cheaper for what). It has been so good and helpful to pare down my money spent! I’ve been quite pleased with how good I’ve been able to do the last month or two because I can keep those tabs running as I shop (I would hate trying to do it on paper and calculator lol I don’t know how I’d juggle the baby, cart, AND that!). I love it!!

    • Oh yes, keeping a price comparison record is SUCH a great method for saving! I’d love to know which app you’re using! I’m such a paper and pen gal myself, but I’ve gotten more into using my phone recently.

    • Richelle says:

      Megan, what app are you using? The price saving/comparison factor would help so much.
      We live in Alaska where fresh produce is rarely really ripe and always costly.
      Thanks :)

  17. This makes me feel better about our food budget. It hasn’t gone up that much, but it has most definitely gone up this past year. We have one less kid than you do, though! I’ve always seen a big difference once the baby started eating solids. I say God knew we couldn’t afford to feed boys because our 3 girls eat us out of house and home!! :)

    • Well, there are definitely a lot of factors playing into why our budget went up so much, and I know for sure that two of the main ones are a) I don’t know where to shop now that we’ve moved to a new town and b) not having a freezer/pantry stash of bulk foods really cuts into the budget and takes a long time to rebuild. It was awesome being able to use it all up before we left and then gift another family with all the excess, but it’s been hard to come back to not having that stash. But seriously, kids can eat so much, huh? Even girls. But I have to say, our 7 year old boy takes the cake. He’s pretty much hungry continually. :)

  18. This IS a good reminder! I’m in your neck of the woods, right in Van, and for the three of us (2 parents and one adult child still at home) I’ve found myself spending anywhere from $250-$300 per week, and that doesn’t include our bulk buys or eggs (like raw honey, pastured fats, pastured eggs, and dry goods from Amazon). We’re gluten-free/low-grain as well (though only I am completely gluten-free for medical reasons), so this means we eat a lot more meat and vegetables. I don’t know about you, but I have been shocked at the increase in food prices around here! It seems like (and I should go back and check my receipts) every week when I go grocery shopping, something that was a certain price last time is a dollar or two more this time! And good produce is so expensive, even though I buy from a few locally-owned stores that are said to be more cost-effective. I have also found our local farmer’s markets to be very expensive, though deals can certainly be had on certain items right in the peak of summer.

    I do menu plan each week (Plan to Eat) and always buy cheaper cuts of meat (ground meats, whole chickens, etc.), but our bill is still always high. It’s discouraging, but I won’t compromise on the quality of the food we eat, particularly as I battle chronic illness with adrenal and autoimmune thyroid issues.

    Anyway, I guess this was just a rant. Any other ideas you have to save money around these parts would be greatly appreciated! :-)

    • It really does feel like prices in this area have gone up a lot lately, doesn’t it? I so get your rant. And if you’re right in the city, I bet it’s even more expensive. We’re out in Chilliwack, although I don’t feel like prices here are any cheaper than Surrey, where we used to live. We don’t seem to have a strong farmer’s market out here, either, so I’m hoping to just drive around on summer days and find farmers to buy from directly. We’ll see. But I do also buy stuff from Amazon, like you mentioned, and I am going back to making co-op purchases through Azure Standard. I have to drive down to Lynden once a month to pick it up, but the prices are definitely cheaper than here and you can get bulk everything, which I love.

      • It really does! That sounds like a great idea to buy directly from farms, you can probably get some much cheaper prices that way. The problem for us is we’re quite far from most of the farms, but, I should probably try to explore the ones in Richmond a little more since that’s nearby (if I can find anything organic or unsprayed!). I love the idea of Azure Standard, and have thought of trying it for a long time now. We don’t have anyone living across the border that we could pick up from, but I’ve heard there are some pick-up points someplace near the border.

  19. Seriously, thank you for this reminder! It may seem so simple, but I’m glad you took the time to write it. We used to be so diligent, but have gone WAY off track in the interest of “eating healthy”. I’ve been justifying the extra money spent because we eat so well, but I know there are ways to trim it way down. Appreciate it!

  20. That’s the same thing my Mom did when I was a kid and we would go grocery shopping. Sometimes she’d even let me input the prices into the calculator if I was careful. Bloom used to have scanners you could take with you through the store and as you picked stuff up, you’d scan it and it would keep a total in the scanner. Then when you checked out, you just put the scanner on the register and it downloaded all your data. I miss that.

    • I love knowing that your mom did that, too. I guess this simple technique has been around for a while! But how neat to be able to scan it as you go – I’d love that!

  21. Loretta Vandenberg says:

    I love this. I’ve been doing my shopping this way for years. We have always been a one income family so every 2 weeks my husband gives me so much housekeeping money and to stay within that budget I make menu plans, lists and always take my calculator. I sometimes got some strange looks or I got smiles from those that understood what I was doing. At the check out I never worried that I wouldn’t have enough to pay for my groceries and have to return items if I didn’t have enough. That used to happen before I used this method. It was so embarassing. I also never had my own visa card until recently so I wasn’t tempted to use that to pay for the “I wants”. It has worked great for us.
    Thank you for this post

    • I know, I get those strange looks, too. But it’s worth it, isn’t it? And I also used to buy all our groceries using a cash envelope, so I know exactly what you mean about having to take items out if you went over at the till. Super embarrassing and not fun, which is why I love tracking it as I go!

  22. I can resemble this! Since the weather has warmed up, school vacation has started and we are constantly in motion our meals need to be the “grab and go” kind, not the pre-made but simply easier, which has equated to making less individual items myself. I have a freezer shelf full of scraps I have been saving to make some stock, yet I purchased my last two supply worth at the Natural Living Store, which was not cheap. Our pantry supply has depleted and now, our grocery bill has almost doubled. I was feeding six people on $600/mth (thanks to my canner, food saver and great local sources) now it’s more like $800-900/mth! Back to the basics I go, rebuilding my stock and reducing my cost.

    Just a note on the grains topic, we too are as grain free as possible due to some health issues that react heavily with grains, but we have found that the occasional use of flour made from Spelt (technically a grain, also technically not a grain and contains very little gluten) does no harm. And I can get a 25 pound bag for $40.00 on Amazon which last over a year.

    Thank you for the reminder!

    • Yes, we love using Spelt and Kamut flours for when we do eat grains. We all react much better to those grains than to regular wheat. :)

      The pantry bulk supply really does make a huge difference, huh? I know that rebuilding my bulk stash will be one of the things that gets our budget back on track, for sure. It’s nice that it’s garden season now and soon canning season will arrive.

  23. Thank you for this reminder! I used to be much more diligent in tracking my spending while I was in the grocery store, but I’m afraid I’ve gotten lazy in this area and our spending on groceries shows it! I appreciate the encouragement to get back on track!

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