Tips for keeping your grocery budget under control

How much do you spend on groceries each month?

It’s a question that’s being discussed right now in several Facebook groups I’m in, and the answers are as varied as they come. Most families with four or more children make it on anywhere from $500 to $1,000 a month, but some smaller families even exceed that.

One thing that is consistent: Everyone wishes they could spend a little less.

In 2011 I quit my job to become a full-time mom to my then-9-month-old son, taking our family from two full-time incomes to one. So being able to spend a little less on groceries was not just a nice skill to have, it was a matter of survival.

Fast-forward to today, and I’ve got grocery shopping down to a science. For our family of 5, I spend between $40 and $60 each week, but no more than $200 a month on groceries. Like a BOSS.

Here’s what I picked up today from my Winco store in Utah for $51.26:

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It may not look like much, but these ingredients (combined with a few others from last week’s trip and things I keep stocked in my pantry) are going to become vegetable lasagna, potato and sweet pea curry, barbecue mushroom sandwiches, cole slaw, chicken rolls, and a week’s worth of lunches, breakfasts, and snacks.

That $50 a week may sound impossible, but trust me when I say that it can be done, and it can be done well — no living off ramen noodles in this house! Granted, the cost of living here along the Wasatch Front is manageable, and my children are small. Although I may not be feeding many adults or any ravenous teenagers, my 14-month-old twins are eating machines and regularly eat adult-sized portions themselves. So while you may not be able to match my exact dollar amounts in your own budget, there are plenty of common sense ways to save big bucks. Here’s a look at my method for keeping costs so low.

First, I cook from scratch — nearly everything. I’m not violently opposed to processed foods, but I do avoid them as much as I can not only for health reasons, but for cost. They may appear to be cheaper, but the reality is they’re generally only good for one meal whereas fresh ingredients can be divvied up and used throughout the week for several dishes and snacks. The foods I buy pre-made are generally those things I don’t have time to make on my own, like bread and pasta, or snacks that you just can’t replicate, like crackers. Otherwise, it’s cheaper (and much healthier) to get in the kitchen and do it yourself.

Second, I eat almost exclusively a whole-food, plant-based diet. This means I rarely if ever buy meat and I never buy pre-made meals. About 70% of what I buy is produce. I’d love to be able to buy more organic, but it’s not in the budget right now. The rest is made up of grains, beans, broth, and a little dairy. In fact, my grocery list is getting hilariously predictable; nearly every single week I buy these same items:

  • Apples, bananas, grapes, and occasionally melon
  • Spinach, kale or chard, and carrots
  • Tomatoes, avocado, and onions
  • Sweet potatoes and yukon gold or russet
  • Zucchini, squash or broccoli
  • Lemons, limes, and oranges
  • Fresh cilantro and basil
  • Brown rice and whole wheat pasta
  • Canned black beans and garbanzo beans and dried lentils
  • Vegetable broth and canned corn
  • Dry goods like whole wheat flour, baking soda, and spices from bulk
  • Eggs, butter, and cheese
  • Almond milk
  • Crackers and bread

Third, I shop the bulk foods section. The price difference is clear: A small box of baking soda can cost more than $2, but the same amount from a bulk bin comes in around 50 cents. I can’t recommend shopping bulk bins enough, especially if you have a Winco store near you, where the selection is huge and the prices are incredibly cheap. Not only can you stock up on essential ingredients, it’s a great place to get snacks, from popcorn kernels to chocolate-covered raisins and raw nuts to Chex mix. One of my favorite things to buy in the Winco bulk section is fresh peanut butter, and I do mean fresh — there’s a machine that grinds the peanuts for you! Like magic! For an excellent in-depth look at the benefits of bulk food shopping (cost and otherwise), check out this great post from grocery411.com.

Fourth, I DIY a lot of stuff like cleaning products and skin care. This isn’t just for the budget; when I worked as a Pin Tester for my local news channel I discovered some things I absolutely love making myself, like homemade citrus cleaner, and my skincare regimen is completely natural and almost entirely homemade (more on that in a later post!). Any woman who’s run out of mascara remover or her favorite face wash when the money’s running out for the month can tell you what a stress those expenses can become.

Fifth, and maybe the key to making it all work: I religiously meal plan. This ensures that I only buy what we need for the week and food hardly ever gets wasted. It also allows me to buy food items I can use for more than one meal, minimizing the number of items I purchase and maximizing the use of those purchases.

For more tips and a better explanation of my methods, check out this piece I wrote for KSL.com: “10 ways to save big on your grocery bill (without clipping a single coupon).”

I know our budget will expand as our kids grow, but I know it’ll stay manageable because I’ve been doing this for years and it has always worked.

So, what do you spend on groceries each month? What are your tips for keeping your costs low?

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