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Prioritizing The Grocery Budget

With the rise in grocery prices comes the need to prioritize how we spend our money. What is most important to you when it comes to food expenses?

Prioritizing the Grocery Budget - With the rise in grocery prices comes the need to prioritize how we spend our money. What is most important to you when it comes to food expenses?

Yesterday’s Grocery Geek tally was a bit sobering. We’ve already spent half the month’s budget and it’s only the 9th?!

True, we started with nothing. True, I started my spending period when it was still October. True, I lost six pounds on our vacation and I’d like to keep it that way eating healthier foods.

But, still.

I can tell I’m going to need to do some reevaluating when it comes to our grocery budget and what gets priority. Time for a grocery audit? I think so!

Here’s the update on our family and how we eat and shop:

Who do you feed?

Two parents (51 and 42); six kids (17, 14, 12, 10, almost 8, and 6)

What do you like to eat?

We like fresh, minimally processed foods. At least that’s the goal. All of us, from parents to kids, know that we feel better when we’re eating fresh, whole foods instead of packaged or fast food junk.

(Don’t get me wrong. It would be dangerous to get between me and a bag of Kettle BBQ chips. That’s why I save them for special occasion treats.)

After spending a month in France eating really great quality ingredients, I want to keep to our whole foods goal. Especially since I lost six pounds! (Post forthcoming about French eating habits.)

Healthy food, however, is a bit more expensive and takes a bit longer to prepare than if I were just opening a box of something.

My priorities are these:

  • organic produce for the dirty dozen, others as pricing allows
  • whole grain baked goods
  • rbst-free dairy products
  • GMO-free whenever possible
  • quality meat and cheese
  • homemade sweets instead of processed

Prioritizing the Grocery Budget - With the rise in grocery prices comes the need to prioritize how we spend our money. What is most important to you when it comes to food expenses?

How much are you spending?

Meh. I can’t really answer this question since this month is a weird month, last month we were in a foreign country, and grocery prices are all wonky due to shortages and holiday sales.

What are you buying?

I’ve been buying very few processed items, aside from the breakfast cereal for FishPapa’s lunches. This month I’ve been buying mostly “ingredients”: fresh dairy, canned and dry beans, fresh fruit, fresh meat, and baking supplies.

I don’t typically buy much in the way of canned or frozen vegetables. I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing; that’s just the way it is these days.

What do you have stored for future meals?

I have a lot of whole grains on hand and a lot of pickles and jam. Ha! I don’t have a lot of other things. Unless I do the coupon/sale stock-up or make a run to Costco, I don’t have a huge stockpile these days. The big freezer is unplugged, so we just have the side-by-side in terms of cold storage.

How much are you wasting?

When I keep mostly white space in the fridge, we waste a lot less than when it’s packed to the gills. I cleaned out the fridge today after being back about ten days. I threw out a tiny bag of someone’s leftover chicken from earlier in the week, but I think that was it for wasted food. I think that’s a minor miracle, actually.

Can you lower any of those costs without paying more in some other way?

After scanning the grocery stores last week and this week, I have a sense of some ways that we need to cut back.

1. Bake more.

It seems that we go through bread and other baked goods pretty quickly around here. A loaf of decent bread is $3 to $4 a loaf. Organic is more. Buying from the store could put me in the poor house!

I’m not pleased that Trader Joe’s changed the supplier and recipe of their Harvest Whole Wheat Bread. At $2 a loaf it was the only way to fly. I cannot find an adequate substitute, so I need to figure out how to make sandwich bread we like. I already bought the USA Pullman Loaf pan; I just need to use it some more and find the ideal bread recipe for sandwiches.

(This post does include affiliate links. If you make a purchase through those links, I am paid a small amount in way of advertising fees. Your price does not change, but your purchase indirectly helps keep this show on the road. So thanks!)

Prioritizing the Grocery Budget - With the rise in grocery prices comes the need to prioritize how we spend our money. What is most important to you when it comes to food expenses?

2. Source better meat and stretch it.

We were a little spoiled in Europe. We didn’t eat a ton of meat, but when I bought chicken breast or sausages from the grocery store, they were really good quality. I’d like to buy better quality meat here, but I feel stumped for pricing and sourcing.

The lowest price for any cut here is currently $2.99, and that’s typically pork or chicken. Beef is much more higher priced. I splurged on a pot roast today ($3.99/pound) but am going to try to stretch it into three meals: Pot roast, beef and barley soup, beef pot pie.

3. Get brave and go to Costco.

Costco is crowded and crazy and hard to find a parking place. It’s also the place that tempts me the most to overspend, particularly in the gourmet cheeses and sauces department. I’ve been avoiding going for weeks, but since we’re now out of all the things we can buy very cheaply at Costco (yeast, cheese, milk, chicken broth, canned tuna, tortillas, turkey breast, etc), it’s time to bite the bullet.

4. Enlist more help from my family.

One of the things that causes me to go astray from our food goals is the sheer work involved. This is silly, actually, since so many people in my family are capable of carrying the weight with me. There’s no reason for me to do all the shopping, planning, and cooking on my own. I do have some control freak tendencies, so I need to let those go a bit.

Getting help from my family to bake and cook and shop will help us save money.

Grocery prices fluctuate. Food shortages come and go. With the rise in grocery prices over all, however, comes the need to prioritize how we spend our money.

What is most important to you when it comes to food expenses?

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Comments

  1. Are you having trouble finding oranges? They’re my husband’s favorite fruit, and they have been REALLY hard to find lately. I may have done a happy dance at Aldi this week when I found them and bought several bags.
    Right now the most important priority in our grocery budget is just sticking to it – there is NO wiggle room. I have to be under $100/week no matter what. What’s working is not stocking up on everything, rather picking and choosing – like buying the 2 lb package of cheese that I know we’ll go through instead of 1 lb each week, or absolutely buying brussel sprouts when I find them for variety in our veggies, or only buying 1 lb of butter at a time and stretching it because butter is delicious but expensive. And I’m watching the baking addins – those nuts and chocolate chips add up, but I can make a yummy pumpkin cake (thank you for that delicious recipe!) without a ton of extras. 🙂
    Whew, you can tell I’ve been thinking about groceries a lot lately, too, especially since our budget is going to get tighter next year when paycheck deductions change.

  2. Sherri S. says:

    We’re in the same boat as your family FishMama. I did a quick check of the grocery budget this week and found that we only have $60 left. **SIGH** Our biggest problem is the months where we have to go 5 weeks between paychecks (as we had to do in October). I really have to stock up at the beginning of the next month and it wipes the budget out. Then, because I’m wiped out, I have to dig through the pantry and use up everything we have to make it through the rest of the month, which then wipes us out at the beginning of the next month. Anyone have any good suggestions on how to keep those “long” months from destroying my budget. I’ve already cut out just about everything I can think of–groceries-wise–and I’m still struggling.

    • I guess we’ll figure this out together!

    • Hi Sherri! On months like that when I stock up at the beginning of the month, I try to use as many leftover “bits” to make casseroles, soups, etc. that I can freeze to use toward the end of the month. I also tuck away extra butter, cheese, etc. that I can to use later in the month too. Sometimes “out of sight” means out of mind, and I don’t use it! It is super tough to stretch that budget on those 5 week months!

  3. Your comment about Kettle chips cracked me up. I have to stay far, far away from those darned things. If calories and health weren’t a consideration, I’d be living on a steady diet of Kettle chips and dip!

  4. It is the stockpiling that kills my budget every week. I have been trying to stick to a 100 a week for a family of 7 which is very ambitious here in Canada, but doable because my two freezers and fridges as well as cupboards are full of food. The problem is I get sucked in by the sales on items that we use all the time, and eventhough I have 6 packs of cereal I have to buy four more boxes because between the sale and the grocery points the boxes are 2.50 instead of 5.50. I tell myself that this food is not for this month so not to count it in this months budget, but it is money coming out of this months budget so that really does not work. I reset the buget every month with good intentions and blow it every month. It gets frustrating.

    • Wow! I’m in Canada as well and there’s no way I could feed my family of 6 on a hundred dollars a week! I could a couple years ago, but not now. Good for you!!! 🙂

      • What Jenn said!! I’ve been spending that for four! But stockpiling is crucial for me, since DH is self employed in construction and weather can have a big negative impact on our income over the winter. I do try to limit it to screaming deals like the several bottles of less than half price pure maple syrup that one store was discontinuing, or organic meats with that pink sticker. I find more of them when I shop about an hour after store opening. We live in orchard country, so local fruit is much cheaper in season, direct from the grower. I can and freeze that and berries from the garden. Nooo, never giving up my stockpile. I’m also letting my points accumulate for redemption in January and February. I use the pantry challenge to use up things that I am oversupplied with or that get sidelined otherwise, not to see white space – that would terrify me.

        My priorities are much the same as Jessica’s, I have two big meat eaters who do physical labour outdoors and weight train as well. A recent diagnosis has made organics and non gmo foods the top priority. Cutting back on sugar has helped because I buy much less of it than in the past, and bake fewer sweet things. Using more expensive natural sweeteners keeps me more aware. My biggest challenges are how to stretch my now costlier meat into filling meals that keep certain family members from raiding the fridge later and snacks that aren’t perceived as “rabbit food”. I do like your veggie plate idea, but need something to satisfy the triple-burger-mid-afternoon pair. Packable lunches for cold weather are also a problem. Cutting expenses at the grocery store is great except when the money gets spent on a fast food lunch.

        • Karen, my hubby is in construction as well, so I know all to well how we have to keep a stockpile going. From January to April, it is pretty lean around here! I guess you could say that feb-apr we have a prolonged pantry challenge lol! My stockpile is a saviour those months! And same with the points redemptions – at Shoppers I stock up on toiletries and PC points for food. 🙂

    • Do you do a pantry challenge very often? We’ll be doing one in January. Might be a good time for you to recoup your savings and use up what you have. When I started doing a challenge twice a year that helped me keep my stockpile in check.

      Also, buy your necessities and THEN if there’s leftover money in the budget, add to the stockpile.

  5. I have a suggestion for the 5 week months. Unless you are paid only twice a month, 2 months a year you get an extra paycheck. Maybe if you budget groceries per week instead of per month, it will be easier for you. Even if you still shop biweekly or monthly, the extra money in your budget will help get you through those long months. Good luck!

    • Great suggestion!

    • When I’m in a bind with the “5 weeks between paychecks” dilemma, I keep a gift card on hand that I order through my credit card rewards program.

      I order a Walmart gift card as they will price match my local stores if I bring the ad with me to the store. I’ve been having a hard time getting them to match ALDI though.

      The gift card is great to get me through those “must have” items (some fresh fruit) until that monthly paycheck is deposited to my bank account. This helps me to avoid tapping into the upcoming month’s food budget and it holds me to task to only spend what I actually “need”.

  6. Nia Hanna says:

    It was hard for us to find a good sandwich bread we like too, but we have 4 that we use, depending on time.

    Our first is the recipe for cinnamon rolls over at AmysFinerThings, we just shape the dough into a loaf and bake in the oven. My bread machine didn’t do a good job baking it. Because its a heavy dough and rich with sugar and egg and because my bread machine dough cycle is only 50 minutes, I like to let it rise for another 30 – 60 minutes in the machine before shaping into a loaf. I let it rise another 30 – 60 minutes in the loaf pan before baking. Oh and we add 1 Tablespoon vital wheat gluten for each cup of flour used in this recipe. Since reading about adding Apple Cider Vinegar as a dough conditioner for whole wheat dough, I’ve gotten good results adding 1 T per Tablespoon of yeast used, so for this recipe we use 2 T ACV to match the 2 T yeast used.

    My second is the 100% whole wheat recipe in Beth Hensperger’s Bread Lover’s Bread Machine book, but I sub the molasses with honey because we don’t like the molasses flavor in our bread and it’s very noticable.

    Our third has actually become the first choice lately because it is the quickest and it is the 40 minute rolls recipe over at Lynn’s Kitchen Adventures. After the dough cycle in my bread machine, I shape into a loaf, let rise about 30 – 45 minutes and bake. We add the vital wheat gluten to this recipe too, using 1 Tablespoon per cup of whole wheat flour. Oh, and we like this recipe better using only 1 Tablespoon of yeast (any kind we have on hand), but the recipe calls for 2 Tablespoons. The ACV doesn’t work well for this recipe.

    Our fourth is the recipe over at Tammy’s Recipes, and we use the dough conditioners she suggests. Lecithin granules, they sell these at Sprout’s, but Amazon has them cheaper and you only use a little, so one will last us a while. A sprinkle of ginger, I add six shakes and you can’t taste this in the finished product. For the absorbic acid, we use ground/ crushed vitamin C tabs, but I’ve read the ACV works too. And we use the vital wheat gluten for this recipe too. I know this one has a few more ingredients, but it’s a good recipe, that is so soft it folds just like store bought bread.

    BTW all these recipes have only lasted 3 days before molding, and we’re in CA too. Only time loaves last about 7 days is when I use freshly ground flour that I grind myself at home.

    • Thank you! Those are all my friends! I will check those out. I have a honey whole wheat in my new book that we like a lot, but it’s very sweet. Needs to be adjusted for sandwiches. Thanks for the links!

  7. On another food-related website, someone mentioned Zaycon foods in a comment post. Their most recent chicken breast sale was the same price as the grocery store sale price so I didn’t buy any but for you, it might be a deal worth looking into. They were quoting $1.89/lb but the minimum order is 40 pounds.

    The $.49/lb sale turkeys probably don’t qualify as high quality but if money’s tight, it’s probably worth having lowered standards.

    For those of us with a deep freeze, buying a half or whole! pig or beef cow can be a bargain once you factor in the fact that you’re not just getting stew beef and hamburger. I’ve been known to tell our guys “Enjoy this because I’m never buying this at the store!”

    Lastly, is there a store that has regular markdowns for meat? We have a local store which is terribly expensive but the meat they didn’t sell on the weekend is generally marked down by Wednesday morning. It’s pretty hit or miss because I’ll only get their sale stuff with the markdown so you can’t really count on it.

  8. I’m hoping you will share more on finding a good sandwich bread recipe. I would like to start making that too.

  9. The stockpiling is my weekly weakness too. We budget 400 a month for a family of 4, and because of great sales in the first week on the things we use often (eggs, flour, peanut butter, etc) my cash envelope is already half empty. I think I’m going to plan now to stay away from stores all week.

    My husband and I have been discussing getting a deep freezer, but unfortunately he’s balking at the idea. He grew up in a family who had one but never used it, and I grew up in a family who used it constantly. I would love to save up and get halves/quarters of pork/beef, since I haven’t bought any in months because even hamburger has stayed well over $3 a pound. I’ll have to crunch some numbers for him with the cost of the freezer, the cost to run it, the cost of bulk meat, to see if it’s worth getting…

    ^^Nia Hanna thanks for the input on bread recipes! We haven’t bought a loaf of bread since February, and while we like the recipe we have (it’s a white-wheat bread from the book that came with my machine), it’s not the greatest sandwich bread.

    • I think that the stockpiling can be a major money suck, especially when we go overboard on seasonal items. One strategy that has worked for me is to buy the necessities for the week. In your case, I would only use $100 for that first week. If there was leftover out of that $100 after I put the must-haves in the cart, that’s what I’d use to stockpile.

  10. Every store is different, of course, but our Costco is nearly deserted on Monday and Tuesday so it is very easy to shop then. The later in the week, the busier the store, and weekends are packed. You might want to ask your store which days are less busy so you can go then. I agree that those cheeses will suck you in!

  11. Here’s a link to the sandwich bread recipe I usually use. I make it about 1/2 whole wheat flour, and it still rises up big and beautiful. I’ve doubled the recipe in my stand mixer with no problems. I don’t have a bread maker, but since the recipe uses instant yeast, I imagine it would work fine in one. Let me know if you try the bread!

    http://www.annies-eats.com/2008/07/24/american-sandwich-bread/

  12. We also try to eat mostly unprocessed foods and organic when possible. I was at Costco this weekend. Cheese prices have totally gone up. I heavily rely on the 2.5 blocks of Tilamook Cheddar and it was $9.29, but frozen b/s breasts were $1.99/lb. Of course my family prefers b/s thighs and they didn’t have the frozen ones and the refrigerator ones were $2.69/lb, which is still cheaper than the grocery store, but more than I was hoping to spend. I’m pretty sure the giant bag of mozzarella cheese went up too ($15.39/5lb bag). I usually buy one every month or 2 and freeze into 2 cup servings for pizza and other dishes. I used to buy the block and shred myself, but for some reason the pre-shredded stuff at Costco is hormone free, but the blocks aren’t. I don’t love buying it already shredded, but I can’t find a good price on hormone free mozz cheese and I make pizza weekly, so I go with the Costco stuff.

    • Yep. Went to Costco yesterday and the cheese had gone up but bacon and butter were back to a doable price. My mozzarella cheese was only $10, though. Less than even. It’s so interesting to me how Costco does its pricing.

  13. I can’t believe you lost so much weight on vacation! That’s wonderful. Most people come home from a trip complaining about how much they gained. Cooking from scratch definitely saves my family a ton, but it is hard work so #6 is a big one for me, too. Baking bread saves a lot, even for my family of just 4. I have a sandwich bread recipe that we love so I will try to get that posted on the blog for you soon. Costco is wonderful for saving on a ton of foods, if you can avoid all of the traps. I know you said you don’t eat frozen veggies, but Costco has a wonderful selection of them at a great price. Most of them are organic, as well. We like the Stir-fry blend, green beans, corn, and Mixed Vegetable Blend. I also use the Mixed Vegetable Blend to make a wonderful creamy vegetable soup (posting that one soon!), Stretching meat is a big one, as well as baking all treats rather than buying them pre-made. Thanks for this list of tips, Jessica!

    • Yep, the scales at the Y and the doctor’s office both confirm my weight loss. I’m thrilled! Now just to keep it that way.

      I looked at the Costco frozen veg yesterday and it was pretty pricey for organic, almost $3/pound. I’m thinking I can get a better deal on the fresh stuff here. Not as convenient in some ways, but maybe once I have enough stuff to plug the freezer back in….

      • Really? WOW! Either prices have skyrocketed or their pricing is different between stores. The frozen veggies I have purchased from Costco are in 5lb+ bags and are usually between $6 and $7 a bag. I’m so sorry to hear that because they are really high quality. Of course, I prefer fresh, but I prefer frozen to canned. You’re right, keeping the weight off is the hard part! Thanks, again, for your posts, Jessica. They are always so encouraging.

  14. Lately my prioritizing has been buying meat on markdown and making my menus around that—allows me to stockpille, but also work off of said stockpile as we only have the freezer in our fridge. For those having that much trouble with stockpiling, have a separate budget for that. Put those items in a separate part of your cart so you can keep a closer eye on them. Jessica—I know this is hindsight, but big travels (sometimes only if it’s more than a week) I often count restocking money into the cost of the trip. It’s sort of like photos—the cost of scrapbooking/printing costs get included as I learned the hard way that those bite after the trip. Considering how far under budget you went on your trip, you might want to consider pulling $100+ from that $3000 to make the most of your grocery month, especially with holiday costs later in the month???

    • Yes, I am going to need to count restocking into the price of the trip. We lumped our October grocery money into the cost of the trip, but maybe I should pull that back out for restocking. We are in our crazy time right now with two birthdays, Thanksgiving, and lots of family stuff going on. I will definitely be spending more than I want to this month.

  15. Sorry about the price of the frozen veg at Costco, I was going to suggest them. Also, I would suggest flexibility in meat purchases and thinking outside the box, so to speak. We are currently using up a batch of ground pork. Several weeks back the store had the whole pork loins in Cry-o-vac on sale for 1.79 a pound. I bought two and had them ground at the store and had another one sliced as ‘breakfast’ (thinner) chops. My store doesn’t charge extra for slicing or grinding when you buy the whole thing, but even if they had a charge it would probably have been much cheaper than ground beef which was running around 4 dollars a pound! So, I would suggest asking what they would charge to slice/grind a cheap cut. I know this would vary and not all stores will do it without charging, but it saves me a great deal of money sometimes. I do have to package the meat in meal size portions for the freezer, but that doesn’t take that long.

  16. I have had great luck with researching and talking to meat farmers at my farmer’s markets. (We even have indoor farmer’s markets inside here in WI in the winter!). They are often able to sell me quality, organic meat for decent prices (cheaper than stores) if I order over 50 or over 100 lbs. I’ve even gone in with three friends and ordered over 200 lb (at a super cheap price for organic) and then split it three ways. I have a deep freeze so it’s worth it for me. I then look at that meat like gold and use every stitch of it. It has been a terrific exercise for me to use things wisely, incorporate more veg and fruit into our diet and teach my kids about how to stretch good, quality food. Good luck on your search!

  17. Bathesinmilk says:

    Instead of Costco I head to a restaurant supply store. Some things are waaay cheaper and some not so very much. It pays to keep track of prices. Ingredients are often cheaper, for instance, I get a pound of yeast for about $3.00 and it lasts about a year. Way better than yeast packets (3 teaspoons/$1 and some odd change) and the meats cost less… Cash & carry is one such restaurant supply store in the Seattle area. Totally no frills, but plenty of parking.

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