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:
- 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.
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.
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)