I used to be the world’s worst grocery shopper. I would go to the store, wander randomly around the aisles, and put things that looked good or were on sale inside the cart. I would always go over budget, and then come home and my husband would complain there was no food. And when it was his turn to cook, he’d wonder why I didn’t buy anything that could make a meal. I would buy spaghetti sauce without the pasta, stir fry beef without any vegetables, 3 bags of potato chips and an eggplant. I was a terrible shopper.
Fast forward a few years. I chose to take a year off work to pursue acting, so we went down to one income and I was SO concerned because we spent a ton of money on food that we didn’t eat. I had to up my grocery shopping game and cut our grocery bill in HALF without starving anyone.
Turns out, it was easy.
The first key was meal planning: figuring out what we were going to eat, and what ingredients were required. It sounds simple but I was kind of a terrible shopper AND cook, so it took some learning. Check out this post where I explain my meal planning for dummies method (aka For People Who Can’t Cook Good).
The next trick was sticking to the budget, which is what this post is about. Now, it takes a little getting used to, but with this method I predict my grocery bill to the dollar and always know before getting to the store exactly what I need.
This is KEY now that I’m shopping with two little monsters who can handle exactly 20 minutes in the cart. That bakery cookie only keeps them happy for so long and my thinking ability gets sucked into stopping them from smacking each other so I can in no way think about what I am purchasing, I need to read it off of a list written when I had more brain power.
So here’s how I do it.
Shop Once a Week – I always shop on a Monday so by Monday morning the fridge is pretty empty. But having a set shopping day decreases the extra spending that happens if I visit the store multiple times in one week, and also helps me stretch the food I do have out a bit. When the fridge is looking bare on the weekend I am tempted to run to the store but hold out because I know shopping day is coming, so I have become better at using up what we have instead of just buying more.
Make A List – When it comes to making the shopping list, I start with the staples. Milk, eggs, bread, butter, etc. I always write down whatever we’re out of in the top corner of my calendar because if I write it anywhere else the paper moves and I can’t find it. When we run out of peanut butter, ketchup, soya sauce, spices, etc, I write it down there. Then when it’s time to make my list, (which I write on paper like an ol’ fashioned lady, even though I know most of you have those newfangled gadgets like iPhones) I just transfer the items down.
Estimate Prices as You Go – I write an estimated price beside each item. This is the part that can take time if you haven’t been paying attention to prices, but between checking the flyers and going to the store EVERY FREAKIN’ WEEK, once you start noticing how much things cost, it’s pretty easy to guess what you’ll be paying.
So the list starts out looking like this with the staples:And don’t try to tell me chocolate chips aren’t a staple, because they are. Also, yes, that is cobblestone ground you see because I’m making my lists while sitting outside because this guy wants to use a spray bottle:
Keep A Running Total of Your Projected Spending – I tally up my guesstimates to know how much I have left to work with. I do it in my head, because I’m a nerd, but feel free to use that handy calculator on your phone! If we are out of a lot of staples, the meals stay on the simple side to keep us on budget. Otherwise, we eat steak and lobster. (ha.)
Meal Plan – Meal planning is key for me not overspending. I usually do it while scanning the grocery store flyers for inspiration. (I look at all of them because of Superstore’s awesome price matching policy. If they carry the same item, just show the cashier a cheaper price and they will adjust it right at the til). For this I do actually move into the world of modern technology, and use the Flipp App on my phone, which will show you the most recent flyers of every store tailored for your specific area. (It will also show you available coupons that you can print, but I don’t have a printer so don’t bother with that feature.) And bonus for price matching, you don’t have to drag paper flyers into the store, you can just display the ad on your phone.
Between what is on sale in the flyer, what meat I may have in the freezer, or whatever food I have in the fridge that may need to be used up, I make a meal plan, writing the meals we’ll have for the week. (I only ever do 6 because every week there will always be leftovers from the night before, a trip to someone else’s house, or an evening where I don’t want to cook and we all eat cereal).I write each meal on one piece of paper and then whatever ingredients we need are added to the shopping list. So say we’re having spaghetti & Caesar salad. I know we have ground beef in the freezer and noodles in the cupboard (though I always look to make sure, because I’m usually wrong!), but I will need sauce and some vegetables, and know we have Caesar dressing for the salad but will need croutons and romaine lettuce. Sauce, mushrooms, croutons and romaine are added to the shopping list, with a little price guesstimate beside them.
After a few meals, I’ll tally up the list again to see how much money is left. Meals either get lamer from there (Toast! We’re having toast for dinner!) or I realize we’re under budget, so I go back and add garlic bread to the spaghetti meal (or an extra treat to the extras column!)
I always make sure to leave some room for lunch foods and snacks for the kids (mine aren’t currently in preschool or daycare so I don’t have to plan lunches), plus fruit and some kind of treat if we can afford it. (Family sized tub of two bite brownies is on sale? Why yes, I think I will, thank you very much).
Only Buy What’s On The List & Stick Close to Your Guesstimated Price – In a perfect world, after I’ve made my list there will also be a little wiggle room for additional items that I see where the sale is too good to pass up. But if there isn’t, I have to force myself to move along without it. It’s not a good deal if you are over spending in order to get it. (unless it is brownies, then it’s totally okay and probably even worth missing a mortgage payment over). There are times I buy the smaller version of something even though it may be cheaper pound for pound to buy a larger volume, simply because I budgeted $5 for the item and the smaller amount is all we need for the week and falls in the right price range. I found this hard to do in the beginning because I am really into buying bulk to save money, but on a tight budget there just isn’t always room for that strategy.
Keep a Running Total At the Store – Now, you’d probably be okay if you made this list, tallied up the price estimates, saw it fell within your budget and headed to the store to buy only the things on the list. Once you get familiar with the average price of most items, you’ll hit it pretty close, so you could just stop here.
I, however, apparently really like doing mental math or something, because I cross items off my list as I buy them, write down their actual price (rounded to a whole number or $0.50 increment because I’m not insane) and then circle it. This way, I can add up the circled numbers as I go to be sure I’m still on track budget wise. Sometimes, I assume I’ll be able to buy a few chicken breasts for $6 and I discover that nope, it’s gonna cost me $12, so adjustments must be made. I may then take an item off my list or just make sure that there’s at least a few items where I over-estimated the price to make up the difference. Occasionally I find several things to be more expensive than I’d planned so something unnecessary will then have to go. (but never the brownies. Those are always necessary. I’d choose not to buy toothpaste or something instead).
So that’s pretty much it. It’s fairly straight forward, but time consuming at the beginning. Now it is second nature to me and only annoying when the kids try to steal my pen at the grocery store while I’m adding up numbers.
A real skill I had to learn was only buying the things on my list. Meal planning really helped with that, since I could say, “We are not eating pasta this week so I do not need noodles, even though they’re on sale.” It was harder to refuse snacks and extra treats but actually needing to stick to a budget has been good motivation. And now because I’m a total nerd, I get a bit of a high from being really frugal and hitting my budget target exactly.
I probably need to get out more. But look! A full fridge! With bacon! I can go out after I’ve eaten that bacon. Mmmmm.
How are you at grocery shopping? Can you go without a list and still actually make meals all week? Let me know! I love to hear how other people do things, even if you’re not a major budget geek like me! Happy shopping!