Buy Groceries on a Budget: How To Make it Happen

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We all have to buy groceries. Buying them on a budget can be a challenge. Here are my strategies for staying in the black this year.

Buy Groceries on a Budget: How To Make it Happen | Good Cheap Eats

Years ago when we were young newlyweds, I would buy groceries almost daily. If something sounded good to me for dinner, I ran to the store to get the ingredients. Since I was likely hungry while I shopped, I also threw in extra snacks and things we probably didn’t need but appealed to my appetite at that moment.

Young and hopeful, I had very good intentions about eating lots of fresh vegetables and would fill the crisper with my farmer’s market hauls only to ditch soggy masses of black goo every week because I had forgotten what I had bought.

Needless to say, I spent far more on groceries than I should have in order to feed two people in 1994 — and wasted even more besides.

Thankfully, I’ve learned a few things since then. I shop the sales. I try to use what we have first. I try to be realistic about how much veg we can really eat in a week’s time.

That said, there’s always room for improvement. I know from experience that our grocery spending can have a huge impact on our overall budget. Someday I’d like to be able to travel AND come home to a house we own; I don’t want to be tenants forever.

Food costs are some of our most flexible budget line items. After all, we get to choose what we eat and where we shop.

We all know there’s a big cost difference between lobster and rice and beans. Likewise, the ingredients for either of those two meals will likely be cheaper purchased at ALDI and Costco than at Whole Foods.

Buy Groceries on a Budget: How To Make it Happen | Good Cheap Eats

Buy Groceries on a Budget

As you know, I am a Grocery Geek. I keep track of what we spend and regularly compare it to the USDA Food Cost reports. This year, I’m going to try beat the fed’s numbers.

The most recent USDA Food Cost report (January 2017) states that a “thrifty” family of our makeup can expect to spend $1312.50 each month to eat all meals at home. This is more than a $100 increase over last year.

Despite the increase, I am keeping my grocery spending goal at $1200/month to feed our family of 8. The competitive nature in me wants to see if I can get it as low as $1000, but it’s been awhile since I was able to beat the food stamp budget, so I’ll start small. We were barely over that number last year.

My plans to buy groceries and not go broke:

Here are the strategies I have in mind for keeping our grocery spending lower than the national averages this year:

1. Shop the pantry first.

As we all know by now, using up what you have instead of buying excess that might go to waste is a great way to stop the slow leaks in any budget. Since our January pantry challenge saved us over $800 of our regular grocery spending, it’s clear that I tend to overstock.

This year I’m going to try not to buy so much that we almost lap ourselves a month’s groceries. Ha!

Buy Groceries on a Budget: How To Make it Happen | Good Cheap Eats

2. Plan trips to buy groceries more strategically.

I have a fairly busy schedule. I’m not saying that to brag or that I even like to be “busy”. Truth be told, when you have six kids, you will be busy. There’s no way around that.

Often I get overwhelmed by everything going on, and I just make a quick stop to buy groceries wherever I am at the moment. Inevitably, I overspend even if it’s just little amounts here and there.

When my kids were little, I planned meals for a month and shopped accordingly. It’s time to get back to a little more detailed planning. Flying by the seat of my pants costs us money.

This year I’m going to try to eliminate these rush shops and be a little more methodical in planning my grocery shopping trips. Since the best priced stores are a bit of a drive from my house, planning is going to be essential. Gas isn’t cheap in these here parts so good planning is the most cost effective all the way around.

3. Buy groceries at the cheapest stores.

This year, I’m tracking the unit costs of what I regularly buy. It was very eye-opening to see that the things I normally buy were not all that cheap at some of the stores I was regularly frequenting. I had mistakenly assumed that Walmart had the lowest overall price on groceries not on sale. I was wrong.

Instead, Costco, ALDI, and Ralphs (with grocery sales and coupons) are proving to be the best bet for me to buy groceries and stay on budget. I still love Trader Joe’s and will probably have a hard time resisting the fun food, but now that I’ve found Costco’s frozen chicken tenders, the break up will be a little easier.

So, basically, it’s a three-step process: Pantry, Plan, Purchase. In that order. I know I won’t follow it to the letter, but I know if I make that my target, at least when it comes to feeding my family, I can successfully buy groceries without going broke and maybe beat last year’s spending record.

How do YOU buy groceries on a budget?

How much will you spend on groceries each month this year? Let’s chat in the comments!

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About Jessica Fisher

I believe anyone can prepare delicious meals—no matter their budget.

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  1. Sandi says

    The report says is should be nearly $400/month for a 22yo male and a nearly 45yo female for the thrifty scale. Yeah… even 10 years ago when I had a lucrative job and did not really pay any attention to how much the groceries cost, I’ve never averaged higher than $300/month. My budget now aims for $200 but if it drifts up to $225/month, I’ll live. It doesn’t feel like we are particularly deprived. We have plenty of – too much – food, and there is plenty of meat included so it is not just all rice and beans. I’m actually still doing the PC because the freezers are still so full. I did have to replace a few necessary staples and I’ve gotten a bunch of produce, but I’m still only up to $330 since Jan 1. Every time I look up the USDA numbers, I’m amazed. They must have gathered numbers from the most expensive places in the country.

    Like you, I shop sales, I stock up when I find amazing deals, and I cook predominantly from scratch. Except for some kinds of produce, I get the majority of my food from Costco. The prices and quality are just better there. That has not always been the case, but it has been for the past couple years. (Ours recently changed the supplier for eggs, however, and those are no longer a good deal. Trader Joe’s is cheaper and the yolks are a deeper yellow color so I’ll be getting them there now.)

    • I think you’ve done a great job, particularly in teaching your son.

    • Tiffany R says

      I love Trader Joe’s eggs. When I make the trip there, I try to stock up! We eat a lot of eggs.

  2. Kathleen says

    We’ll (hopefully) average around $1000/month for our family of 5 (3 teen sons). The USDA calculator show we should budget about $900. BUT we eat organic/grass fed meat, poultry, and eggs. We also have one son who is gluten free. This doesn’t include the produce from the garden (I should subtract for months we have that produce). But reality is we eat clean, healthy food. This meets our needs. Other families will need to spend more or less.

    • Was that $900 for the thrifty plan?

      • Kathleen says

        Yes, rounded! I went back and added again and it comes to $854 for Thrifty. Hah. Unless we eat beans and rice for 2 days per week, and raise more of our own produce, that isn’t going to happen. The meat and dairy are what makes the biggest difference in our budget and we’ve decided not to compromise. (We tried and 3 of the 5 noticed the change within 2 weeks. Only 1 (me) of those 3 was aware of the changes.)

        • I wouldn’t worry about it then. The low cost plan is still a great target, particularly with organics, GF, etc.

        • PJ says

          I realize this is probably an old post and you won’t likely see this, but if you can upgrade 5 people, especially including teens, to grass-fed/organic for less than $150 a month difference, you are my personal hero. And I want your source for meats! 😉

  3. TSandy says

    I use an unusual method to save money. I joined a local organic buyer’s co-op who buys directly from the growers/ranchers. We have buying power because of the sheer number of our members. (Over 600 families locally.) My grains/flours come from Montana Flour ( a co-op of grain farmers who even mill the flour. We order every two months. My meat comes from twice a year buyer events and is from local ranchers. We do beef, pork, and lamb. I do supplement with Zaycon where I also purchase shrimp and cod. In season we do group buys on fruits from local organic orchards. A local pecan grower provides organic pecans. Spices, herbs, teas etc come from Frontier (we pay wholesale prices) and Mountain Rose Herb which gives our group discounts. Some members sell directly as well- goat cheese, goat milk, goat milk soaps, raw milk, organic eggs, chickens, turkeys. I get the best honey directly from a local beekeeper. My maple syrup comes from a small family owned Vermont company. The group does use Azure Standard and they have great prices but I shop only 3-4 times a year from AS (specifically things like vital wheat gluten, organic rolled oats, organic steel cut oats, organic popcorn, organic peanuts to make peanut butter etc). I supplement by shopping at Costco and Sprouts for produce and if I didn’t live in the desert I would raise a big garden. As it is now I can all our applesauce, apple butter, and our jams/preserves. I don’t spend any more feeding my family better quality food because the middle men (food distributors, grocery stores) are taken out of the supply chain. Frontier just added Culture for Health products and now I can get my heritage cultures at wholesale prices. I don’t run from store to store chasing bargains.

  4. June says

    Ohhh Jessica, you are the best at spending the least and feeding your family the best! And you do it all the time! I have times when I’m better at the process and other times we eat expensive cake…

    One thing we do not do as much of, is eating in restaurants, mostly because Im neurotic sp. About what I’m eating and where it came from and if the kitchen is clean it was prepared in…but it saves money too…

    I like your choices of grocery stores. Costo has great meat and olive oil Kirkland organic evoo is highly rated.

    I still go to sams for boxed lettuce and whipping cream and paper products plus other things too.


    • You crack me up. I think you’ve made great progress over the last few years, don’t you?

  5. Becky says

    Right now, I’m doing a pantry challenge. I’m putting $50 per week in an envelope to get odds and ends like milk and eggs, and using my home-canning, freezer food and pantry for the meals. I’m well stocked and want to use up a bunch so I have room in the freezers for the garden I will be growing. I’ve just finished week #2 and have spent $50 total. I just found a bargain on potatoes for 10c/lb, so I bought 100 lbs.

  6. Janet says

    One of our most effective saving strategies, is making a very deliberate effort to not waste food. This habit does result in some strange lunches for my husband and I on occasion, but the impact is evident at the cash register. We were able to shave a good 10 to 10% off our grocery bill.

  7. Donna says

    I budget $600 a month for three of us… two adults and an 18 year old that eats like two adults (and a daughter in college that comes home 3-4 times during the school year). That budget includes all our paper products and cleaners too. The biggest “saving” tool I’ve found recently is that my favorite local store, Woodman’s, offers online shopping (they are a huge store that has the best prices and no fancy displays…like Aldi) and free pick up of your order if you order over $100 worth (which I always do.). I love to grocery shop, so if I’m actually IN a store, I tend to spend a lot of time there and pick up lots of extra items. By doing the online shop for most of my essentials for the month and picking it up, I’m saving about 15% on my shopping bill. I supplement with weekly trips to Aldi for things like produce and milk. It’s working great. I’ve also stepped up the meal planning again and am trying to use the things that languish in my pantry…. saves so much time, energy and money. Wasting food makes me so sad. Good luck with your goals, Jessica!

    • I think the free pick up is a great strategy to saving money. Knowing yourself is key!

  8. Tara says

    I really enjoy your site, but I’m finding some of it is hard to get the nitty gritty when it comes to canadian price points. When I look at the USDA averaging 900 a month, it makes me worry because we’re currently a family of 4 (with a 9 month old and thinking of expanding to family of 5) and we spend about $400 a month on groceries. Is there a Canadian blogger that has as awesome of a website as you do?

    • Hi Tara. It’s true; it’s apples to oranges when thinking about the economy of a different country. I wonder if the Canadian government has put together similar reports that might help you track your progress?

    • Holly says

      We’re Americans living in Canada on a temporary work assignment. I have looked but been unable to find anything Canadian like the US report; I have found other reports, but nothing with so much information. My husband is paid partially in US dollars, partially in Canadian, which makes things confusing, too, for a budger. I’ve been tracking my spending this year, as we move back to the US in July, and I want to be prepared. I tend to gross US prices up by 20-25%, but I know US food prices are increasing, as are Canadian. Based on the report, our family of 4 (one teen girl, one teen boy) should spend $884US a month on the low-cost plan, so I call that $1060CAD, but I’m trying to spend around $800CAD, just in case food prices aren’t as good as I think they are in Oregon!

      • Holly says

        I’m also trying not to stockpile too much after a very successful Pantry Challenge, which may have an affect on our food costs.

        • Heidi says

          Holly and Tara, I’m American and have lived in Canada for over a decade now. (Hubby and one of our sons born in Canada, other son born in the US) Just like the US, where you live in Canada highly impacts food costs. Even though we now live in “Foodland” Ontario, the overall cost of food is similar in many regards to when we lived in Edmonton, Alberta. I would say the overall quality here is much better because food hasn’t had to be transported as far, etc. We can eat locally much much easier here in Guelph than we could in Edmonton!! However, many things cost more than when we lived in Western Canada. Ebb and flow. Give and take. For our family of 4 (me, hubby, 2 boys – one almost 13 and one 9), I try to budget $800CAD / mo for food. I often find it a challenge. I tried to get down to $600-700 but could never sustain that for any period of time. I cook nearly everyday and make most things from scratch if possible (tortillas, pitas, most bread in general, granola, pizza sauce, all dressings, desserts, main meals, etc). One of our sons is very carnivorous while my husband and I eat very little meat (maybe this is the year we’ll finally go vegetarian??). When we go down to Arizona where I am from, I can buy almost all organic food or local food on that budget while here I have to pick and choose. That’s not whiny, that’s just life. Being content with my own current circumstance is really important to my overall perspective and well being!! Basics like cows milk costs more here in Canada (absolute cheapest is about $3.97 for a gallon, but I usually pay $5/gallon — nonorganic — while soy and almond milk I have found about the same as the US (about $3.88 for a half gallon). From my experience, “basics” like eggs, bread, meat and cheese cost more here in Canada (having lived in Arizona, Philadelphia PA, St Louis MO and Indiana) in comparison. Places like Costco help, but it’s still dollars per item more than the US, so you can’t use US price books etc. I thought there was a Canadian Costco price book somewhere online…
          Tara, tell me all your grocery secrets as I have no idea how you do it!!

  9. Kathy says

    I primarily shop Aldi and Kroger. I find that by getting most of my basics at Aldi and round out at Kroger. Loyalty card at Kroger helps with digital coupons and best customer coupons for things I buy the most that don’t usually have traditional coupons such as cheese, meat and produce. I also take advantage of a few apps such as saving star, Ibotta, and checkout 51 for rebates. I find that the apps are really a bonus since you have minimum cash out amounts. But I only use them after I shop so that I am not tempted to buy something not needed because of a rebate.

    Thank you for all you sharing of tips. Your blog is one of my must reads. I too am a grocery geek.

  10. Jorja Parsons says

    I read a lot of money saving blogs and articles. But a lot of the suggestions are not useful to me. I live on an island and in a rural community. I cant just shop once a week because a lot of the times when I go to store they are waiting for the trucks to get off the ferry because of bad weather. Our groceries often cost more here because of the cost of shipping. So if you want to get a real sale you have to check a couple of times a week. And I just cant shop at the cheapest store because we only have 3 to choose from. Most of the suggestions I read are for larger areas.

    • Yes, your “mileage may vary” depending on where you live, what stores you have available to you, etc. Even in larger areas, prices can vary at stores within the same chain. Sounds like you do a good job of assessing your situation and making the best of it.

  11. Jill says

    So do you prefer the Costco frozen chicken tenders over Trader Joe’s ones now?

    • From an ingredient perspective, I prefer TJs. From a price standpoint, Costco. From a taste perspective, I can’t tell the difference.

  12. Barbara says

    We come somewhere between the low-cost and moderate plan for 5 of us, including two teenage boys who swim competitively. So OK, but still higher than I’d like. I make our own cookies, and we bag-lunch, and we go out to eat maybe every other month. Anyway, re your comment on Walmart, I think you’re right. It’s easy to believe that Walmart–and Target, too–have lower grocery prices. But I routinely do better at my local supermarket, which has better weekly sales and double coupons. So by not shopping at the big boxes, I save money and time, too.

    • Barbara says

      I forgot a couple of things. First, my grocery bill increasingly contains non-food items that are in the same general price range as Target, sometimes a bit more, sometimes cheaper. Plus the coupon doubles, and it saves me time not to make two stops. And finally, I find I do better on my grocery bill when I take the time to write down prices as I go, then add them up before checkout. I round up to the nearest dollar (easier for mental math). So, for example, one loaf of bread is $2.49, so I write down $3. I do that for everything I buy. It helps me see what I’ve spent, in a ballpark figure, and I can put something back if I overspent. Today, though, I came in under the ballpark–$260 for a week’s worth of groceries.

  13. Jennifer says

    I laughed at your 1 month lapping. I have probably lapped close to a year!
    I started my freezer/ pantry challenge back in January and i finally have 1 empty shelf in the standing deep freeze.
    There are only 2 of us, but I buy in bulk and plan each week based on what we feel like eating. Neither of us drinks milk (as milk) so we are content with dry milk for cooking and baking. I generally spend $25 a week with $400 every quarter set aside for buying in bulk/ big stocking. It ends up being less than $250 a month – well below the $340 a month the government says it should be.
    I do plant a small garden (mainly herbs) and keep chickens (eggs only). We alternate hunting 1 hog or 1 deer each year and do 1 shrimping day a year. Last year, we got nearly 75 lbs of shrimp in that one trip! I buy fruit and vegetables in bulk at the height of the season and then home can, dehydrate, or freeze them.
    This year I have cut down substantially due to the overstock and eliminated the winter quarter’s stock up and dropped our weekly to $15 to force us to use up what’s in the freezer/pantry.
    Aldi’s is too far away for me to shop there regularly, but a colleague for commutes does, and she will text me when she’s in the store if she thinks there is something I might want or is a really good buy.

  14. Janet says

    My 14 year old was diagnosed with a gluten allergy in December. In the past we have followed the USDA thrifty budget. I have found it difficult to maintain that budget while purchasing gluten free foods. A loaf of store brand GF bread runs $6 for goodness sake. I know I need to learn to bake GF baked goods, but the ingredients are expensive and so far we have found the results less than satisfactory. I would love to hear advice from other mothers trying to buy groceries on a budget while dealing with a significant food allergy. To date we have been trying to focus on naturally gluten free foods, but it is a bit limiting.

    • Do you have Trader Joe’s? They have a good selection of GF products and my sister swears by their GF bread.

  15. We have a family of 5 and I spend about $600 per month. I get the ads for Aldi’s but haven’t tried them yet. My husband had some time off for Christmas and we were going to go there and look around, but didn’t make it.

  16. Kathleen Cadle says

    I think if you’re all wanting only high quality food ( or. Grass feed beef), then congrats, you’re all doing a great job. I however can’t afford that much for food a month. I spend between $300-500 a month on everything ( including toiletries, paper goods, etc..) for a family of 4. We have a 14 yr old athlete that eats like a man, he’s 5’10” currently and a 24 yr old daughter back at home. We eat out once or twice a month, but it save a lot of money by buying in bulk and shopping at Aldi’s and the Dollar tree. I can buy so much at Dollar tree for such savings that we now actually get steak a couple times a month. We live in Iowa and the beef cost if just crazy. We mostly eat ground beef and chicken. I stretch my money the most however by making enough dinner to last for our lunches the next day. We do eat a ton of veggies and fresh fruit also. I think the biggest spendature i get every pay day (2 wks) we don’t really need is cheese besides my snacks. I but from many stores as needed. Walmart we seem to get the best staples prices for sugar 20lbs for $10,, toilet paper, paper towels in only use bounty), stream bags, paper plates, etc… Aldi’s i use for cheapest eggs, frozen veggies, fresh veggies & fruit, canned tomatoes, cheeses, etc…. Dollar tree i can now get bread for a dollar, a ton of my condiments and spices ( chopped garlic!), Etc… It all depends on what’s on sale and in stock. My main attribute is i can plan my meals on the fly if something’s on sale. For example last week, Fareway had chicken quarters for like 59 cents lb & 10 lb bag potatoes $1.69, I stocked up. BBQ chicken, Hawian chicken, chicken stir fry, chicken & dumplings, white wine chicken & brussel sprouts, loaded baked potato soup; all easily made with my kitchen staples I keep stocked up on. I spend about $100-150 on actual food every 2 weeks, and around $20-50 month on staples and other items. I just buy an item when I run out and I’m done.

  17. Jen says

    Eating well on a budget has always been a fun challenge for me. I use multiple strategies to keep my costs down. I buy my meat in bulk when it’s on sale and I package it with my FoodSaver and freeze it. I will also cut my own meats to save money. I keep a running inventory of what is in my freezer.
    I use it to plan my meals based on what’s on sale and what I currently have in my pantry and freezer. I only buy dry beans and cook them in large batches in my Instant Pot then divide them into smaller portions and freeze. I keep all my vegetable scraps in a bag in my freezer. Once the bag is full, I make my own stock. I do the same with chicken or beef bones.
    I grow my own fresh herbs and dry them or put them in ice cube trays with EVOO and freeze them when I have a surplus. I will make a double batch of soups or casseroles and freeze half for later use. I like to make my own spice blends and my own mixes and sauces rather than buy them. This way, I know exactly what’s in it, it is less expensive and tastes much better! In late summer, I buy large quantities of vegetables and I either can or blanch and freeze them for fresh tasting vegetables all year long. If I have vegetables that are getting a little less than ripe, I will make a soup or throw them into a stir-fry or pasta sauce to use right away or freeze. I use FLIPP to price match all my grocery purchases and a few apps that give me cash back such as Checkout 51 & Caddle for my purchases. I also make all of my cleaners from scratch and that also saves me a fair amount of money.

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