In today’s blogging and social media world, there are so many catchy “headlines” to indicate how families can live on astronomically low grocery budgets. “How I feed my family of 5 for $150 a month!” or “We Live on $40 a week!” While they can be helpful and inspiring, I personally feel like these types of articles have the potential to make readers feel bad about themselves and promote standards that seem so impossible, it turns people off to the whole idea of shopping frugally altogether. That’s obviously not the goal of the writers and their grocery budgets are admirable, but probably not feasible for all folks.
So what’s my advice on the matter? Here’s what I think it comes down to: one grocery budget does not fit all! There are so many factors that come into play when determining what you should be spending at the grocery store, it’s impossible to recommend an actual amount. I know we are a society of quick fixes and easy answers, but I’m sorry to tell you that just like losing weight or anything worth working toward, there are no quick fixes to trimming your grocery budget – it just takes a bit of a learning curve and cultivating some different skills over time. This may not seem like a convenient or trendy answer, but it’s the truth. Remember – slow and steady wins the race, and this is always true when it comes to household finances. But don’t be discouraged! Having control over what you spend on groceries is one of the most powerful ways you can save your hard-earned money. You can have mastery over how much you decide to spend if you’re willing to commit to it.
Instead of worrying about an actual number, focus on these “commandments” on frugal grocery shopping, and I promise you’ll be well on your way to success.
Ignore Other People’s Grocery Budgets: There is no sense in comparing your family’s needs to anyone else’s, and this goes for grocery shopping as well. If you think, “How can that family of six spend just $400 a month when I only have two kids and we spend double that,” don’t worry about it! You don’t know if that figure includes what you would consider groceries. Everybody has different dietary needs and preferences. There is no right or wrong here. Some people prefer organic ingredients. Some families make their own cleaning products. Also, consider this: that friends of yours who only spends half as much at the grocery store as you may be spending a lot more on take out, fast food, and restaurant meals. In my household, we might have a larger grocery budget than families twice our size but we almost never go to restaurants. We’ve all got to get food somehow! In other words, it’s all relative. Don’t compare yourself to what anyone else does!
Track What You Do Spend: So, I just told you not to concern yourself about what other people spend at the store, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore what you spend. You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve come from. Begin by writing down everything you spend for one month. You don’t need a fancy app or website to help you track things. Just literally jot it down. Include everything, even a stop for a quart of milk. You might be amazed at how much you’re actually spending. The next step would be to determine if this amount feels right to you, or if it seems out of control. It may take several months to get a sense of this. Once you’ve set a budget goal (maybe just try $30 less a month), it’s important that you continue to track what you spend in order to stay on budget. This is not arduous. Keep your receipts, scribble the info down in a notebook, add up the total at the end of the month, and you’re done. Your totals are going to fluctuate from month to month, but overall you’re going to look at the average.
Focus More on How You Grocery Shop: Evaluate what your shopping habits are really like, because this is what affects your grocery bill more than what you’re buying. Do you meal plan and make a list? Do you stop at the store on the way home every night? Do you restock items you’re worried you’ll run out of too often? Are you just overwhelmed at how much your family eats to think about anything else? My biggest piece of advice about spending less at the store is to shop less often. Everything you need to know about how to make this work is here.
Meal Plan: Repeat after me: I have to meal plan if I want to spend less on groceries. This is your new mantra. Menu planning is not overwhelming after you get started, and yes...you do have the time for it if you want to make a change in your spending. Having a meal plan puts you in control of what you are choosing to buy, when, and how much. It keeps you organized and saves time in the long run because you’ll always have a blueprint to rely on. For my complete tutorial on Meal Planning 101, click here.
Stop Wasting Food: The average American household throws $1,500 worth of food in the trash annually. Not being mindful about utilizing everything that you do buy perpetuates your overspending because you are replacing items that you’re already spent money on and wasted. Even if you think you don’t waste food, there is always room for improvement. Scanning your perishable food items and making a point to use them should be a daily habit that is simply part of your lifestyle. For more tips on avoiding food waste, see here.
Recognize the Grocery-Dining Out Connection: If you’re looking to not spend as much money on groceries, chances are you might also be overspending on restaurants, take out, and convenience food. Take a look at the big picture and continue to track your spending to find out where your money is going. If you only spent $300 one month on groceries, that sounds great, but did you also spend $250 on fast food and dining out? Dining out, while a wonderful treat every once in awhile, is just that – a treat. It is all overpriced to account for overhead, and you can make similar meals for so much less at home. For tips on how to actually dine out less, click here. And, for great on-to-go meal ideas for busy families that are always on the run, see my blog on it here. It might mean that your grocery bill actually goes up, but the overall amount you’re spending on what goes in your family’s mouths goes down in the long run.
Finally, be realistic. You have to put a little work into practicing the above habits to see if you can lower your grocery bill over time, as well as observing your spending habits over the course of several months. If you are already doing everything you can to reduce your grocery bill, consider this: maybe that’s the best it can ever be! As your family grows or as your children get older, you will also have to make adjustments and realize that you may have to spend a little more. Your grocery shopping and budget are like living, breathing parts of your life that may fluctuate and ebb and flow over time. But it’s crucial to be as mindful as you can by meal planning, utilizing what you buy, and not running to the store more than you absolutely need to. And remember – no comparing yourself to others! Good luck!!