Ready to commit to a monthly grocery budget? If the urge has finally hit, chances are good that you've experienced the haunting thought of “I'm spending too much" while roaming the grocery store aisles. Feeling regret and concern about not having a frugal grocery list is a good thing, and the precursor to successful food shopping on a budget.
Before you can create a realistic monthly budget for your groceries, you need to know where you stand with spending. Keep receipts and track food purchases for a month (including eating out and every iced coffee from Starbucks).
You may discover that you're spending far more on food than you realize.
You can even divide your purchases into groupings—maybe your fresh produce budget is acceptable, but the amount spent on frozen items is excessive. Once you have a tally, this is your starting point—and the goal is to spend less each week from here on out.
Know where you stand
Paying attention to national averages can help some people create their shopping budget, especially those who are ready to go cold turkey on their hefty shopping bill and start saving immediately.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) maintains a list of food plans at four levels —thrifty, low-cost, moderate, and liberal.
If there are just two people in your household, between the ages of 19 and 50, the average cost for the thriftiest food-spending plan is $382 a month. That's a tough goal to reach when you're not used to counting coins.
A low-cost plan rolls in around $489 per month, while the moderate plan is $607, and the liberal plan is $759. If you're at the top end, make it your goal to drop below the national average until you're in a more frugal position.
Nowhere close to the liberal end of spending as you begin budgeting for groceries? Consider it a win! And every dollar saved from here on out is another win.
When you have a family of four or more, which according to the USDA includes two adults and kids up to age 11, the thrifty budget ranges from $557 to $638 per month. Spending liberally to feed those growing young people? National averages come in between $1,087 to $1,273 a month.
Budget weekly or monthly
Some savers find a weekly budget serves them better as they rarely go more than a week without shopping for food.
Having a monthly budget, however, will keep you more on track so even if you go overboard one week, you know how much you have remaining and will work harder to maintain a frugal grocery list to avoid overspending the following week.
Plan your meals
Buying groceries on a budget goes hand-in-hand with meal planning. When you know what you'll be serving your family for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day, you're less likely to fall back on takeout or meals out.
Meal planning makes it possible for you to plan your grocery list efficiently so you shop within your budget, without waste, and without splurging.
As you go about figuring out how to budget groceries, you'll realize that one of the biggest grocery-budget money sucks is meat.
If you can have one or two meatless meals a night week, you'll save big. Substituting meat with tofu, lentils, mushrooms, eggplant, or any food with a meaty taste or texture can fill the craving while costing less.
At the very least, stretch cuts of meat into multiple meals. A salad with diced chicken breast one night, and a chicken stir fry another night with lots of veggies to supplement. You're still dishing up protein, just in smaller quantities.
Your family may not be a fan of spaghetti and meatballs on Monday night and meatball sandwiches on Tuesday night, but using what you have and relying on leftovers will help you make a cheap grocery budget stretch throughout the week.
If you cook more than you need and know your family won't eat it the following night, freeze the rest so you can use it later when you find yourself in a pinch for meal ideas. Or cook double batches to start with the intention of freezing for future meals.
There are some items that will always be on your weekly grocery list for their versatility and the health of your family, such as milk, eggs, bread, fresh fruit, and vegetables.
But you can alter the types and quantities of priority items. Choose fruit that's in season, for example.
It's also a good idea to keep a list of expendable items so it's always easy to nix something from your list if it just doesn't fit the budget that week, like a new juice flavor or extra toppings for a fancy salad.
If someone in your family has special dietary needs, such as a gluten intolerance, your spending will have to be adjusted accordingly to accommodate their diet.
If it is your preference to buy all organic, you will have to make choices about what specialty foods you can live without or where you can buy more sparingly to make your budget stretch.
We are creatures of habit, but if you rely on the same food items meal after meal you will eventually have a bored palate.
Food should be enjoyable, even when you're buying groceries on a budget, so identify a few weeks' worth of budget-friendly meals (and snacks!) and rotate them. Without variety, you're more likely to fall prey to the call of takeout.
Be careful with couponing
Cutting coupons can have serious benefits for meticulous grocery shoppers, but pick and choose your coupons wisely.
A coupon for a brand-name item that needs to be purchased in multiples to get the discount may not be worth the money. People who overstock often continue to purchase groceries at their usual rate, therefore not really saving any money.
Plus, what you buy in bulk could expire before you have the chance to enjoy it, and you may like the generic brand better, so why use a coupon just because you have one? A good deal can easily equal an unnecessary grocery item.
Keep a price list
A big part of food shopping on a budget is awareness. If you're purchasing that box of mac and cheese regularly, you either know exactly how much it costs, or you take for granted that you need it to ensure that your picky toddler ingests something and buy it at any price.
Keeping a price list can be as easy as dedicating a notebook to your endeavor so you know which stores have the lowest prices and when it really is cost-effective to stock up.
It may seem counterintuitive to download online shopping apps for your favorite grocery stores when you're working on how to budget groceries, but this technology can be an invaluable resource.
Add all the desired items to your cart and wean from there. You can see what's not discounted and determine whether you can wait another week before you purchase it.
If you need more convincing about the benefits of creating a cheap grocery budget, consider this: The more you cook at home, the more likely you are to eat better and the less likely you are to overeat.
Your family will make smarter choices about eating to get the most out of their calories so they are satisfied and following a nutritionally sound diet.
Giving up on little luxuries like chips or ice cream that can break your food budget will slim your waistline. And who doesn't love to save money, and save themselves from gaining a few pounds too?
Just remember that a monthly grocery budget isn't about deprivation, it's about smart planning and shopping savvy. Give yourself the challenge and see just how creative and frugal you can be.