How to Reduce Grocery Spending (Reader Q&A)

Looking for basic tips to reduce your grocery spending? We’ve got answers in today’s reader Q&A.

I am actually out of town today hanging out with one of my favorite grocery geeks. I’m not reporting on my recent purchases today. I’ll do some big catch up next week, but for now, I’ll say that last month’s grocery spending ended at around $800. Not as good as I hoped, but I can’t tell you how quickly we’re going through food. I think my kids must all be having a growth spurt!

So today, I thought we’d field a question from a reader. Often times folks write me with questions that I know others could benefit from the discussion and even more could add to it.

Today’s question deals with how to reduce overall grocery spending.


Q. I am struggling with lowering my monthly grocery bill. I just can’t seem to get it below $600 a month. I have a family of 4, and we have a cat and a gecko. I have 2 boys, ages 10 & 13, almost 14. I homeschool the boys so I plan 3 meals a day and 2 snacks. Plus Hubby takes his lunch everyday, usually leftovers from the night before, and he has 2 or 3 snacks at work, then snacks some at home in the evenings. (He has a high metabolism.)

I buy very little processed food, make as much from scratch as I can, buy in bulk what I can, and my meals are not very elaborate. For some reason every month I am spending $600 on groceries. I just can’t figure out how to lower the bill. Do you have any suggestions?

A. The first thing that comes to mind is a question. Why do you want it lower than $600?

I think sometimes, especially those of us who read deal blogs or clip coupons, we get these notions of the “right” amount to spend. There’s no law that says you should spend $X/week or anything like that. You get to set your budget based on your family and its preferences and dietary needs.

Considering the ages of your kids and the size of your family, the USDA estimated food costs for your situation would range from $648.40 to $1323.20 for the month. I would say that you’re doing great! I would not say that you are extravagant, by any means, especially since you eat your meals at home. (We eat out a lot and have a separate budget for that.)

In my mind, you don’t “need” to go lower, unless you want/need to use those funds somewhere else. And there are plenty of situations when that is the case. Been there, done that.

That being said, there are some basic ways to slash your grocery spending. Here are three:

1. Go meatless.

I know in a family of men, that might be harder for some of your people to swallow. But, meatless does not have to be boring or less satisfying. Consider more affordable proteins like beans or eggs to serve in a main dish instead of meat. In our debt-fighting days, we had meatless meals three to five times per week. (I also lost a lot of weight which was an added bonus.)

Chili, beans and rice, pasta, egg salad sandwiches, and omelets can be filling and exciting meals without the meat.

2. Let the sales dictate your meal planning.

For years, I planned meals in advance and thought I was doing all I could do to save money. It wasn’t until I changed my menu planning that I realized we could pinch a few more pennies. I made a switch to only buying things that were on sale and planned our meals around the best deals.

A friend asked me one summer, “But, how do you buy cherries and plums?”

I don’t. Unless it was a rock-bottom sale price, we didn’t buy it. She was aghast. “Don’t you eat fruit?” Yes, we do, but we eat the fruit that is on sale or less than $1/pound. We made adjustments in order to spend less.

Stock up on good deals of meat, cheese, dairy, grains, and other grocery items, and build your meals based on the lowest price available.

3. Watch the unit price.

It used to be that buying in bulk was the cheapest game in town. Until the marketers figured out they could charge more because folks didn’t do the math. We all assumed that the bigger package was cheaper. I think it might have been a conspiracy.

Buying in bulk can save you money, but you need to do the math to be sure you are saving.

I hope you’ll be encouraged that you’re doing pretty good where you’re at already. There are always more ways to shave a little more off the spending. So, keep on keeping on!

What advice do YOU have for lowering the grocery budget?

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Comments

  1. Great post! I’ve been cutting our grocery bill by shopping smarter but not cutting the quality of the meals. I find it challenging and fun hah!

  2. Eckert S says:

    Great info! Here are few of my tips:
    -I think it is important to look at your average monthly spending. Some months I stockpile the great deals and spend more, but that allows me to spend much less other months.
    -Buying in bulk doesn’t always mean big packages. Sometimes I can buy basics like rice and beans cheaper in 1 pound bags than 25 pound bags. I have no problem filling up my bean bucket or rice bucket with multiple small packages.
    -look into your crystal ball…last January I bought a year’s supply of sugar (in 5 pound bags and stored them in a big plastic bin) My sister teased me about being a survivalist. But the price of sugar has risen 30% in the past year, and that is a decent return on my investment! With rising gas prices, you can expect items shipped from afar will significantly increase (think sugar, coffee, etc).
    -Whole grains are a big part of my pantry, our menu, and my ability to reduce our grocery budget. Whole grains are more filling and healthy for all of us, not just my bottomless pit teenagers. I buy wheat 100 pounds at the time (Whole Foods is the best source in our area). I store it in 2 plastic buckets with gamma lids and grind it myself. I cook almost exclusively with fresh milled wheat instead of refined flour. I also grind my own corn and buy rolled oats in bulk (from Costco), and steel cut oats in bulk (from the local farmers market). I wish there was a one stop shopping source, but there isn’t in our area. So I find the best price and buy enough to make the multiple stops worth my while, I try to buy at least 3 months worth of each whole grain at one time.
    -I make my own yogurt in a crock pot. Easy Peezy, and for each $1 I spend I figure I save $3 to $5. (love to see my kids snack on homemade granola topped with homemade yogurt!)
    -Keeping a well stocked pantry keeps me out of the grocery store, and that saves more money than you might think. Those impulse buys really add up.

  3. Thanks for this post! Very encouraging. Here’s a tip that has helped me reduce our grocery budget a bit more:
    My grocery store has a lot of markdowns, and I always watch for those when I’m in the store. Pears might be $1.39/lb, but there may be 2-3 lbs of “ugly” or slightly bruised or just-ripe pears wrapped in a produce bag with a $.75 sticker on it. I’ve learned what time of day they tend to mark things down, and I try to shop shortly after that time. Most of the fruit I buy is markdowns, and sometimes it’s even stuff like kiwi or pomegranates (which I obviously don’t buy often because I’m pretty sure I misspelled it). Ooh, and that’s how I first tried honeycrisp apples. Yum.

  4. KETRN67 says:

    The OP doesn’t state whether she does all her shopping in one store. I live in an area w/2 competing chains plus Aldi, Costco and Super Target. There are certain things I always buy at Aldi (for example most of my canned tomato products and spaghetti). There are certain things I buy at Costco (eggs, tray packs of meats for freezer cooking, cheeses, soy milk, butter, toilet paper, etc.). There are some things I order from Amazon (including a great deal I found on SAF instant yeast). I don’t shop at all of these places on a weekly or even monthly basis. I often don’t need to go to Costco or Aldi more than every few months. I do usually go to one of the local grocery stores (choosing one based on who has the best sale as they are across the street from each other) for produce, sale items, etc. each week or so. I have to admit that we are trying to meal plan and not doing well at all, for various reasons. We also could probably eat out of our pantry and freezer for at least a month so I do seem to have an over-buying problem. However, I still feel I am usually getting the items I buy at the best price because I have figured out which stores consistently have the best prices on certain items that we buy on a regular basis.

  5. I would just add buying seasonal produce–that seems obvious, but I know sometimes it’s easy to forget. I agree with Becky about produce markdowns (or dairy, if your store has them). I usually buy produce every week that have been marked down. My store generally marks older/less than perfect produce at 50%. Sometimes the savings is even better. I like to buy organic peppers and baby spinach this way. I can often get a 1 LB tub of spinach for less than $2. This week I bought marked-down peppers and squash. It saves my budget a bit to do this.

  6. Harriet says:

    The produce stand near our house, that is open year around, has an “uglies” table. Every morning they add to it things that are at their peak or are bruised, etc… I bought some green peppers there last summer for $.30 each. I bought all they had, brought them home, washed them and cut them into slices and stocked my freezer with them. I did zucchini and squash that way too. It helped all winter not to have to buy produce at full price to get things that were not in season.

  7. We have some terrific ethnic markets in our area, especially hispanic. I find that I can often get terrific deals on produce there and some canned goods, tortilla chips, beans, etc. Plus I like giving smaller local markets business. I shop at a variety of stores and try to pick up things that are good deals along the way and then plan my menu accordingly. If I feel like my “larder” is getting too full, I stop looking at circulars and flyers and concentrate on reducing what I already have. Once I get to a point I feel is comfortable and “ready” I start shopping again. I find that if I look at circulars, I keep shopping. Everything goes on sale at some point, so I don’t worry about missing a good sale.

  8. I cannot tell you what a revelation seeing that USDA food cost chart was for me. Just earlier today I was telling my husband how I feel that I must be missing something, that I overspend on groceries, but after reading the chart I see that I’m actually doing pretty good. Some time a good reality check is in order! Thanks for the encouragement!

  9. I think it’s a great point that $600 is a decent amount to spend on a family with 2 growing boys and a man. That particular species eats a LOT! And if you can afford it in your budget, why stress out about lowering it? BUt if you really want to save money, my first advice is always to have a price book or price list. Most people think they know the prices in their area, but I don’t think it’s possible to truly h ave a good handle on who has the best prices w/o a categorized price book.

  10. What a great point! What is the right amount to spend? I often look at a blogger and think – sure they are only spending $100 for a family of four. One of those four is a toddler and the other is being breastfed! I have two teenagers that are more like adults than kids!
    I started a “4 weeks for $475 at Costco” challenge today. I was worried $475 was too high – even though I buy organics and know that I will have food left over at the end of 4 weeks. Crazy, huh? The whole point is to try to show how to get more organic food into your diet – but without spending a lot.
    Thanks for posting the chart and posing the question. It was good food for thought!

  11. MELISSA EBBING says:

    I like the USDA post also! Thank you! I save a bit by adding oatmeal to my hamburger and you get an extra hamburger or two. I also freeze all leftovers like crazy. Then next week defrost it all and voila….a buffet! yea, my hubby really doesn’t like the idea…..but when I tell him it saves us $ he quiets down….got to save as much as possible. Little things add up to be …. a whole meal in our house each week.

  12. There are four of us. Three adults and one teenager, four indoor rescued cats and two outdoor dogs. Our grocery budget stays around 350.00 to 400.00 , depending on whether I am stockpiling that week. This includes cat food and dog food and litter and paper goods and household products. We have a cat food thing we do with Purina by saving weight circles and we only buy in bulk on sale for cat food and dog food. After we have so many weight circles, we send them in and get 6.00 back on several bags of cat food at a time. We only buy sale items. We buy some organic. We have a small garden in the summer. We combine many strategies for saving. Dollar store for advertised specials, buy generic and in bulk when on sale, and use coupon and store coupons. It takes a little planning, but it is worth it. We don’t eat out a lot and when we do it is usually with coupons. We buy cheaper cuts of meat and use the crockpot. I think I bought strip steaks only once this year and everyone thought we had won the lottery(lol) We do have a balanced diet with mostly chicken, fish and really lean cuts of meat and lots of fruit and veggies. No sodas, just flavored filtered water, tea and coffee on sale and of course milk for the teenager. He eats like there is no tomorrow. O.K., all of that being said, I can see how it might be hard to maintain a budget like this with more than one teenager or several children. It is worth the effort to leave off the junk and sodas. Our son is thirteen and I don’t recall ever seeing a blemish on his face. His energy level is through the roof, because he is not bogged down with sugary treats. He gets to choose a special desert once every two weeks or when there is a special occasion.(Birthday) He doesn’t complain. He likes the way he looks and feels .

  13. Kaitlin says:

    A few months ago, I talked to the ‘meat guys’ at both Walmart and Food Lion. Both told me that while they marked meat down daily, they marked a LOT more down toward the end of the month. They said this was due to folks getting paid at the beginning of the month and buying big ticket items, like meat, then. By the end of the month, people were waiting for the next pay check to buy meat and that meant more meat left over to mark down.

    For the last two months, I’ve checked the meat departments at the end of the month. Between the two stores, I’ve found every kind of meat we eat (including deli meat) marked down 33-50%. I stocked up as I found each kind. Since I have a stockpile in my freezer, I can afford to wait until the next time I find ‘clearance prices’ to buy more meat.

  14. Meat is probably one of the biggest expenses in food. I don’t mind the occasional meatless meal, but I don’t want to do it all the time. Thus, I tend to use recipes where the meat is cubed, chunked or shredded. If you see a 2-3 oz piece of steak or chicken breast, it looks really tiny. That same amount of meat spread throughout the dish gives you a bit of meat in pretty much every bite, so you think you are eating plenty when in fact the amount is still reduced. This is not only cheaper, but often healthier as well.

  15. I know a lot of people don’t have time for this – and some are very timid to try it – but homecanning does wonders for my family. I don’t know what my grocery bill would be without it, since I’ve been at it since before the kids were born, but I feel pretty confident I could go a month without grocery shopping if I had to. If you educate yourself and dedicate a garden to your families specific needs and wants, then it really worth it. You also get the added benefit of knowing exactly where your food came from & whats in it. There is an initial investment (pressure cooker, jars, rings, lids, freezer containers), but then you only have to buy lids regulary (1.75-3.00/for 12 – depending on your area). Like I said, it may not be for everyone, but I plan on upping my preserving and freezing again this year! We have four kids under 7, one on the way. I spend roughly $300 a month on food. I know as the kids get bigger, so with that number! I’m comfortable with that -but if I can lower it I’ll be looking! :)

    • @Paula, Homecanning is a wonderful way to stretch your food budget! I’ve been canning/freezing/dehydrating foods for 40+ years. I so admire you taking the time with a young family. :) It has always been worth the effort to me and to be able to make meals that I knew where the food came from. Gardens are great benefits and we still grow our veggies each year. Teri

  16. The USDA chart does not take into account the cost of living in an area. When I read a recent article that my city is THE highest in groceries I started to forgive myself on our grocery bill – $700 a month for 3 people. I think we are doing well because though my son is 3, our grocery bill has not gone up since he was born due to some changes on my end. Grocery prices have increased substantially from 3 years ago.

    Our diets cannot accommodate convenience foods which are often what the coupons are for. I agree with the comments that one must focus on the unit price. Just because the grocery store’s ad says it is on sale does not mean it is!

    My recent discovery is that we can actually have two leftover nights in our house rather than just one. Looking at your food waste is one of the best places to find money savings.

    • @Me, I’ve noticed this too, particularly in the last year. Specific items I bought regularly suddenly jumped up. For example, I used to get an amazing deal on coffee at Trader Joe’s and one month it went up a whole dollar, then another month, another fifty cents. Butter, too, seemed to jump.

  17. I like that you mentioned that bulk is not necessarily cheaper. Once I started getting more serious about finding deals and knowing where to find the best ones, I realized pretty quickly that places like Costco CAN offer good deals, but it’s not a given at all. I’ve seen really lousy deals there too, plenty of times. I used to think it was cheaper almost across the board, but it’s not at all. People shop there with that idea, I’m sure.

  18. The chart is rather scary, we are a family of 8 as well, but we only have a $60 weekly budget for groceries, so things get a little complicated for us. I would love to have $600 a month to spend on groceries, lol.

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