8 Things Experts Want You to Know About Grocery Shopping on a Budget
Grocery shopping on a budget can be a challenge, but one with a huge payoff. Here are some easy tips to get you started—and keep you going!
In the United States, consumers are dealing with the biggest jump in grocery costs since 1981. Unfortunately those rising grocery prices can put a strain on many household budgets. (Do you know what groceries cost the year you were born?)
Grocery shopping on a budget doesn’t have to be a painful or depriving experience, though. There are plenty of ways to stretch your food budget without sacrificing taste. If you make the effort to stick to a budget for groceries, your finances and stress levels will thank you!
How Much Should I Budget for Groceries?
According to the January 2023 USDA Thrifty Food Plan, consumers should budget $977 per month for a family of four (two adults and two children). For comparison, the January Thrifty Food Plan from 2022 showed an average family budget for groceries as $875. But figuring out how much money you should set aside for your own grocery spending requires a little legwork.
First, you should uncover how much you’ve already been spending on groceries. Taking a look back at your bank and credit card statements for the past few months could help you answer this question. As an alternative, write down all of the purchases you make at the supermarket over the next 30 days.
Next, you’ll want to consider your income and expenses. How much can you comfortably spend on groceries while still having enough money left over to take care of your other financial obligations and goals?
Remember that a good budget should have room for realistic spending. An overly ambitious restriction sets you up for failure before you start. If you have to make deep cuts, look for every place you can cut back, from frivolous items to name brands, and work some cheap dinner ideas into your repertoire. If you’re looking to shop on a strict budget, you should also give Salvage grocery stores a try.
How to Grocery Shop on a Budget
Making a plan to manage how much you spend on groceries is an important step. Yet the real challenge is following through. Below are eight grocery shopping tips to help you succeed.
1. Track your spending
Tracking spending is essential to your budgeting success, especially if you’re changing bad grocery shopping habits. Apps like Mint and Qube Money can make this process easier. Other people might prefer to use a spreadsheet or stick with an all-cash grocery budget to avoid overspending.
No matter how you decide to keep tabs on your spending, consistency is key. A grocery budget can only be effective when you stick to the plan.
2. Stick to your grocery list
Introducing a grocery budget into your life can be a big change. So don’t be surprised if you fail to meet your goal, especially in the first couple of months. Sometimes, we just can’t resist those triple chocolate brownies or seasonal iced coffee flavors!
“The important thing is to not let those first few failures discourage you,” says Chris Browning, host of Popcorn Finance. “Budgeting, particularly for groceries, is a skill that takes time to develop.”
Browning suggests using the first few months of your grocery budgeting experience to learn a few things about yourself. As you figure out what food you like and low-cost recipes you’ll actually make without throwing out food at the end of the week, you can set yourself up for even better results moving forward.
While you’re getting used to having a budget, try making an organized grocery list and sticking to it. Instead of walking aimlessly through aisles, a list gives you a plan of action. The best part is that lists don’t have to take the fun out of grocery shopping. On your list, plan for “fun buys” or extras. For example, if you usually budget $60 a week for yourself, buy $55 worth of needs and leave $5 for surprises. That way, if you walk past a box of chocolate chip cookies, a “fun buy” is already on your list, and you don’t have to worry about going over budget.
3. Shop online
A supermarket is full of temptations to make you spend more money. One easy way to overcome these obstacles is to shop for food online.
“I learned that if I do my grocery shopping online, I am much more likely to stay within my budget,” says Browning. “I am horrible at keeping track of the total dollar amount of food that I have put inside of my shopping cart. Shopping online allows me to see a running total and make adjustments as I go.”
If you’re good at picking up necessities like milk, meats and produce, but it’s the packaged food that brings you over budget, try splitting up your shopping. Go to your local grocery store or farmer’s market for the fresh foods, and buy nonperishables online so you see exactly how much is in your cart.
If you do shop in the store, make sure to take advantage of their best deals and perks.
4. Shop for store-brand goods
One of the easiest ways to see more savings is by purchasing generic or store-brand products. Name brands are often marked up because you’re paying for the brand, not necessarily what’s in the food. Cereal, oatmeal, canned goods, spices and snack foods are all good places to start when buying generic.
5. Limit ready-prepared foods
We’ve all been there—it’s late, you forgot to thaw the chicken, and now you have to run to the store for dinner. Ready-made foods like prepared dinners, salads, washed and cut produce and even sliced cheese are going to cost a bit more because the work is all done for you.
Paying for convenience is nice, but it can definitely cause a dent in the budget if it becomes a regular thing. If you love ready-made foods but don’t want to pay the extra dollars, set aside one day a week to meal prep. That way, you’ll have meals ready to go without the added cost.
6. Buy meat and cereal in bulk
Cereal is one of those foods that make Costco memberships worth the money. Because of the way cereal is packaged, you can keep it in your pantry for six months to a year. This means it’s good to stock up when you see sales, or use that Costco card to buy in bulk.
The same thing goes for meat. If you’re good about using up food in your freezer, try buying meat in bulk. This is also a great option if you enjoy cooking with different cuts of meat instead of the same ones every week. Instead of buying a few packages of meat every week, reach out to local farmers or visit your local butcher to see what kind of deals you can get on bulk meats. You’ll have to plan for a large upfront cost (and room in your freezer!), but your yearly cost for meat could be much lower.
7. Use coupons carefully
Deals on foods are fantastic, but if you notice you start using coupons just to use them, it could result in spending more money. Only use coupons for foods you know you eat regularly or have planned a meal for. This way, you won’t end up with three bottles of mayonnaise you may not even use.
8. Use rewards cards
One of the easiest ways to spot new deals or get access to discounts is to sign up for the rewards program at your grocery store. Every time you make a purchase, you rack up more points that can result in freebies after so many points are earned. If your store’s rewards program is accessible through an app, the app will also be a great source for scouting coupons and weekly deals you might have missed otherwise.