If you’re anything like me, you start out a new month with the best of intentions; “This will be the month where I stay on track perfectly, where I save money on groceries and get the best deals to cook all the delicious food I’m planning!” And yet, without a solid plan in place, and systems to support it, my grocery spending often gets totally out of control and is anything but simple and stress-free! Learning from both my good months and my bad months, I’ve tested out many different grocery budget suggestions and methods and found what really works for me. The following are five of my top tips that I’ve found help me save money on groceries, without taking up too much time or making my life any more complicated!
Tip #1: Write Down a Detailed Budget
Similar to the way I tend to rhapsodize frequently about meal planning, I also can’t say enough good things about sitting down EVERY MONTH and writing out a detailed budget, with your spouse if you are married. Use a zero-based budget system, where you take your total monthly income from all sources and then subtract your total monthly expenses (including debt repayments, savings, and giving as well as all your bill payments and other spending), making sure that you end up at zero. (For more on this, I highly recommend the excellent budget resources provided by Dave Ramsey). This doesn’t have to take a long time – most items can simply be copied from the previous month unless something changes – but it is the single best way I know to make sure I plan where my money goes instead of reaching the end of the month and wondering what happened. My hubby and I have also found that our monthly budget night is a great chance to really connect with each other – we put the kids to bed, make a pot of tea, and then discuss our goals and dreams and whether we’re on track to reach them financially. It makes budget nights a lot of fun, and a unique way to know each other better, as well as an opportunity to crunch the nitty gritty numbers,
Tip #2: Use Cash Envelopes
I was probably among the greatest skeptics in the world when it came to my husband’s request that we start using only cash to pay for our groceries. I thought cash was inconvenient and annoying, and didn’t earn those tantalizing points like my credit card did. And if I paid off my credit card every month and didn’t carry a high-interest-collecting balance, what did it matter? Even using my debit card was easier! But that’s where I had to learn a couple of lessons: one in irrefutable numbers, and the other in human nature.
My husband loves everything to do with finances and economics, and is thrilled to draw up spreadsheets and calculate things. I’d generally rather jab a pencil through my eyeball. The numbers in the “credit card points” discussion were hard to argue with – at least in our particular case, the only way we would even earn anything at all through the points would be to also use the credit card exclusively to gas up our vehicles at the one participating gas station in our city – one that is not in a convenient location for us, and typically costs more per litre to begin with! My grand delusions of earning free vacations and electronics and cash back were shattered. (*Disclaimer* I’m sure there could be people out there who structure their budgets and spending in such a way that credit cards are a useful and valuable tool for them – I’m merely stating that we are not them!).
And then came my lesson in human nature. As much as I would like to state that I am a perfectly self-disciplined, rational, intentional person in all moments, one look at my grocery spending history would tell you that is a lie. I naturally gravitate towards the path of least resistance, what is easiest and most convenient in the moment. In terms of our grocery budget, that means that if I don’t have to keep track of what I spend, I won’t. It was a humbling admission for me, but I realized that unless I have the slowly diminishing pile of bills in my wallet as a reminder to pay attention, I will inevitably spend more than we had planned to. I’ve even discovered that I do better if I break it down still further – instead of just a big pile of cash for the whole month, I subdivide. I know how much I have to spend on groceries each week, and approximately how much in each category. So for instance, if I have $600 in my monthly grocery budget, I break that down into about $150 per week, and then subdivide that into about $60 for produce, $40 for meat, $30 for dairy, and $20 for pantry staples and miscellaneous. When I break down my cash envelopes that way, I stay on track throughout the month. If I get lazy and don’t withdraw cash, or don’t divide it up, I’m almost always running out of money before we are out of month.
Tip #3: Shop Less Often
Reducing the frequency of my grocery shopping trips accomplishes two things for me. Firstly, it saves me the annoyance of getting my kids all loaded up, making sure we aren’t cutting it too close to a meal or a nap, and driving to the grocery store when I only need to buy five or six things. Secondly, it provides less opportunities for impulse purchases. It’s another fact of human nature that the more you shop, the more you spend. Fewer trips to the grocery store means more money stays in my wallet. In order to make this work, I have found a detailed grocery list to be indispensable – I have lists that correspond to my meal planner, as well as a pantry staples list, so when I’m planning my shopping trip I know exactly what I need to get. (Because there’s nothing more annoying than coming home from shopping and realizing you forgot to buy an essential ingredient for dinner!) I also mentally resolve before entering the store that I am not going to buy anything that isn’t already on my list, unless it is such a spectacular deal that it’s worth adjusting my plan.
As a side note, I probably wouldn’t be able to get away with only grocery shopping two or three times a month were it not for Thrive Life. Because I have a host of different fruit and veggie options in my pantry, not at any risk for spoiling, I can get away with not shopping as frequently for things like fresh produce. I know that the nutritional content of my Thrive Life produce is actually higher than most grocery store produce, and the flavour is unbeatable, so I can get away with only buying “fresh” a few times a month and don’t need to be frequently buying fresh produce in small quantities so we can eat it before it spoils.
Tip #4: Keep a Buffer Supply at Home
Piggybacking off Tip #3, I have found that keeping a fairly substantial supply of longer-lasting items at home helps me stay on budget. If you’re not the type with a deep freezer and fully-loaded pantry, the up-front cost may be higher for you, but I do believe it saves money in the long-term. For instance, my husband and I typically buy beef from a local farm in bulk – as much as half a cow at a time. I also like to bake, and am trying to get into the rhythm of making everything from scratch, even our bread, so I purchase my flours and sugars in bulk and store them in giant bins in the basement and refill my kitchen container as needed. And of course, I must mention my significant Thrive Life food supply – I have several shelving units in the basement for unopened cans, as well as a pantry full of what I’m currently using. When I purchase in bulk, I’m able to pay less per unit than I would if I bought smaller quantities, and often the savings are quite significant. I also do pay attention to sales and try to stock up on something when it is on sale if I know it’s something we will use. As far as budgeting for the bulk purchases go, I’ve found that it typically balances out month-by-month without special planning – I leave a percentage of my grocery budget dedicated to pantry items, and unless I run out of every single bulk item at once, I usually don’t end up going over budget with my bulk purchases. (Aside from the large beef purchase- we do budget separately for that!) I’ve also found that having a reasonable supply of food on hand at home gives peace of mind – if some disaster were to occur, or suddenly our income stopped, we wouldn’t have to be immediately scrambling for grocery money. And, on those bad months I mentioned above where I do a poor job of staying on track with the grocery budget, we can always spend the last few days of the month eating down our freezer or pantry to stay within our planned spending!
Tip #5: Do What Works for You!
I have also learned that even the best-sounding idea in the world will fail if it doesn’t work with my life and my personality. I have a girlfriend who is the queen of comparison shopping – she searches and searches and compares and shops around until the finds the absolute best deals! While I admire her greatly, I just am not the type to put that much time and effort into sourcing my groceries! I have tried, and it just doesn’t work for me. I have another friend who batch-cooks; on the weekends while her husband is home to keep an eye on her little ones, she will cook 3-4 meals which they will then eat all week. It saves her a ton of time and money, but I just can’t do it myself! I’m too picky and too easily bored to eat the same thing all week long. A third friend of mine stocks up on almost-expired goods from stores, and then creates recipes based on what she purchases – she saves 50-70% on her groceries, but she shops several times each week and has to constantly invent new ways of using up what she buys before it spoils. Each of those ladies has a system that works brilliantly for them, but it doesn’t work for me.
My system of planning everything out in advance and paying for it in cash might not work for you! But therein lies the beauty and variety of different families and different kitchens. It is my hope that you can draw from the ideas presented here, take what works for you and discard what doesn’t, and get that much closer to achieving your own grocery budget goals!