I always thought that our spending habits when it came to groceries were pretty normal (maybe because for the first six years of our marriage, we lived in a poor college town full of poor college students), but based on some of the comments coming in lately asking how we manage to spend so little on groceries every month, I guess I’m a little more unusual than I thought.
Disclaimer: There really probably isn’t anything new or exciting about these suggestions. These are just the ways that we personally manage to keep our grocery budget between $150-200 a month (for two people).
Update: As of September 2018, we spend more than we used to, as we now are a family of four–usually between $300-380 a month. Note, however, that this number includes ALL household goods as well, such as toilet paper, makeup for me, diapers, etc. (And when I really watch the budget closely, we still have months where we spend just $250!)
Honestly, it took me a little while to get this grocery bill thing so low–when Matt and I were first engaged and he was coming over to my apartment for pretty much every meal but breakfast, I went crazy on the grocery bill (mostly just because I wanted to impress him with my burgeoning cooking skills). I remember that for those first few months of engagement and marriage, I was easily spending $300-350 a month on groceries for just the two of us. It wasn’t until we’d been married about a year and were both jobless for about 4 months that I started to really crack down on our spending, especially when it came to groceries. During that time, I learned how to be “the crazy coupon lady” and learned to basically live on rice and beans. There were times during that summer that we only spent $75 a month on food.
Now our money isn’t so very tight like it was during that unemployed summer, but the frugal habits have still managed to carry over (for the most part)—I don’t really coupon like crazy anymore (I coupon hardly at all, in fact), and I’ve allowed myself about double of what I did during that lean time when we could only afford $75/month on groceries, but we still keep it pretty cheap apparently.
So here you go—my tips for keeping your grocery budget at a minimum with minimal effort:
10 Tips for Saving Money on Groceries
1. Cut out the soda. (In fact, limit buying drinks period.)
One of the first habits I got into when I started my teaching job was drinking Diet Dr. Pepper every day in order to “get through” the stress of it all. I justified the money spent on soda by saying that it kept me sane and happy. Last November, my doctor told me that it was likely the soda was part of the reason I had so many stomach problems, so I quit cold-turkey. Not only has my stomach felt better than it has in years, but I also managed to cut an easy $30 off our grocery bill. Win-win.
Let me break down my soda spending for you so you can see how it added up (even when I was getting killer deals on it!):
Every day (or nearly every day), I would drink a 16-oz bottle of Diet Dr. Pepper. Since it was in the house and Matt doesn’t mind the flavor of it either, he would usually drink around 4 a week himself. This means that every month, between the two of us, we would consume around 50 bottles of Dr. Pepper (let’s say 48, to make the math a little easier). Since they came in packs of six, that meant that we were going through 8 packs every month. Now, occasionally with coupons and such, I would get a REALLY good deal on the six-pack, like six for 99-cents or something, but more often than not, those super good deals were balanced with “emergency” DP runs (since I never seemed to buy a sufficient supply), where I would have to pay full price for the pack (somewhere around $3.50). When coupons or amazing deals were not available, I would say I spent an average of $2.50/pack, for a total of $20 a month. Not a terrible number, but not great either.
However, inevitably I would find myself at the school sometimes in desperate need of a caffeine fix, which meant that I was very regularly purchasing $1 bottles of DP through the vending machine at my work. On average, I easily bought at least 5-10 bottles of DP a month at my job, and many months, it was probably more. So, we’re looking at $25-30 at least being spent on something that I really didn’t need and that really wasn’t doing me any favors in the long-term. If you’re looking to cut down your bill, cut the soda first—your wallet (AND your gut) will thank you.
Also, while we will always have milk on hand, we rarely have any other drink in the house, including juice. While we’re not perfect at following this rule, I know from plenty of experience that if you train yourself to just drink water with your meals, you can save quite a bit of cash, as even the cheapest gallons of orange juice will run you around $4 apiece (ditto for chocolate milk), and the frozen cans of concentrate can add up VERY quickly if you have them on a regular basis.
2. Figure out when it’s worth it to buy in bulk (and when it’s not!).
Ever since we got a Sam’s Club membership, we’ve been buying more in bulk than ever before. In fact, for the first several months we had our membership, I went a little crazy buying up anything and everything that we ever used, figuring that if I was buying it in bulk, it MUST be a better deal.
Let me give you an example: When Raven was four months old, I was told by my doctor that I would no longer be able to nurse her anymore due to my own health issues. Suddenly, we had this new (expensive) thing we had to buy regularly–infant formula–and of course, after trying all the different kinds, my daughter only readily ate one of the most expensive (Similac) and wouldn’t hardly even touch any of the other brands. Since I figured that Sam’s Club MUST have the best deal on Similac, I bought huge tubs of the stuff from them for months. However, what I didn’t know initially was that if you sign up for Similac Moms’ Club, they’ll send you coupons you can use off of your formula purchases. (However, as any SC or Costco member knows, these bulk retailers do not accept coupons, so these deals must be redeemed at other stores to get the deal.)
Well, around the same time, Smith’s came out with a bigger can of formula than had previously been offered, and comparing straight across (no discounts or sales), the Sam’s Club deal was only *slightly* better (like, a cent or two per ounce). However, combined with the coupons (and especially combined with the fact that Smith’s regularly had theirs on sale), I not only got a MUCH better deal, but all those points also added up to free formula every month or so through getting rewards points.
I have found through scrupulous price checking across stores that there are certain things that seem to always be cheaper bought in bulk and that are worth it for us (string cheese, chocolate chips, tortillas, and often meat, to name a few), but there are some things where it’s usually cheaper NOT to buy from a bulk retailer (especially because of regular sales on them at other stores), such as bread, ice cream, milk, toothpaste, floss, and cereal.
***A note on buying meat in bulk—with buying so much meat, it’s usually essential that you freeze most of it, which is why we regularly use (and ADORE) our FoodSaver vacuum sealing system and are planning on buying a chest freezer like this one in the very near future, since our current one is rather small. I usually buy all of my meat for the month in one grocery trip and then freeze the rest. It’s a great way to portion out our meat, and it means that I’m usually able to make it stretch a lot further too since I can always see how much we have for the month at any given time in our freezer.
You also need to consider how much you’re actually able to USE of what you buy in bulk–if much of it goes to waste, there’s no point in buying so much!
3. Cook 95% of your own meals (including lunch for whoever is out of the house during midday!).
Each month, we eat about 100 meals total. Matt and I usually only eat 2-3 (or so) of those meals at restaurants or take-out places. By cooking our own meals most of the time, we are almost guaranteeing that we’ll spend less money than had we gone out for that same meal (plus we’re healthier for it).
This tip especially applies to lunches, which is the meal most likely to be eaten away from home. When I was working full-time at the desk job I had before becoming a teacher, the other people in the office NEVER brought lunch from home and would go get lunch every single day, whether it was from the gas station up the street, a fast food place, or even sometimes a local restaurant or takeout joint. They easily spent $5-10/day on lunch alone, and if you’re married and both of you are working outside the home (or have kids in school and buy them school lunch every day), costs REALLY start to add up quick. I (and later, when I stopped working, Matt) brought our $10 garage sale microwave into work and heated up leftovers every day for lunch, which meant not only that I was eating healthier than pretty much everyone, but also that I was saving a cool $150/month, easy. It does mean that you have to plan ahead to make sure you always have something to take in, but it’s worth the effort!
4. Go meatless as much as possible.
Meat prices are constantly on the rise, so choose to eat meatless as much as possible. We have several go-to meatless options that I can make anytime we don’t have any kind of meat in the house, such as these super easy cheese ‘n avocado tortillas, these three ways to make homemade mac and cheese, these black bean and sweet potato rice bowls, fancied-up quesadillas, or a breakfast-for-dinner option, like German pancakes or this creamed eggs recipe. Most weeks, we eat about 3 days’ worth of meatless meals.
5. Limit “snack” food (especially processed snack food)
I was trained not to be a snacker growing up—we always ate 3 solid meals that were generally plenty big enough to last us until the next one, and the only “snack” foods my mom had in the house were healthy (like fruit), which prevented me from becoming a big snacker. Those habits have carried over to my adult life, which means that you’ll almost never find too many snack foods (esp. processed snack foods) around our place. In fact, the only snack foods we typically keep on hand are tortilla chips, salt crackers, popcorn, and string cheese.
Also, as a mom, I’ve noticed that any day I give Raven a “snack,” she is almost guaranteed not to touch her next meal (which is usually the healthier of the two). So, by not buying snack foods for her like fruit snacks, pretzels, and chips, I’m not only saving a ton of money, but I’m also ensuring that she’ll eat her calories from the more balanced options found during mealtimes. (A great book that reinforced the virtue of not giving my kid snacks was this great read.)
6. Stock up your pantry.
It is this tip that has probably made the biggest impact on our grocery spending. When I was in college and had 3-5 roommates at any given time, I had such limited cupboard and fridge space that I couldn’t build up much in the way of a pantry. Since getting married and moving into our own little place, we have invested in a huge floor-to-ceiling heavy-duty shelf that can house hundreds of canned goods and other pantry items. We usually wait until case lot sales to purchase these types of goods, and we only have to do it once or twice a year. During those months of case lot sales, my grocery bill will go up to probably $250 for the month (Updated number: $350-375/month), but it’s worth it in order to have plenty in the pantry.
Also, it’s important to actually plan meals around what’s in the pantry. Many of my quick weeknight meals are based off of items that are always on our shelves, and many of my meals that have a longer prep time simply require me to buy a few fresh things at the beginning of the week from the grocery store. It is mainly because of this tip that our grocery bill is kept so low because we only need to purchase $30-40/week of fresh food to accompany what we already have on hand.
Last note on pantry stuff—if you can’t afford all of it at once (we certainly couldn’t), then just build it up gradually : spend $20-30 extra a month to go towards pantry staples, and soon you won’t even have to add to it unless you run out of something.
Some of my favorite recipes and posts based on pantry staples:
*Creamy Bow-Tie Pasta (aka, what I make when my pantry’s almost bare)
7. Shop at only one place most weeks (and do your research to find out which specific place would save you the most money that week).
When I was a hardcore couponer, I totally would have disagreed with this tip, but that’s because I had the time and energy to go to several different stores to get the best deals. Now that I no longer coupon very much, I’ve found that my bill is kept lower simply by only shopping at one store per week, ideally a store I shop at regularly and that I know has good prices on the things I need. (For a comparison of three popular grocery store chains and a comparison of their prices, check out this post.) As most people know, stores are purposely set up to make you spend the most money possible, so simply the act of going to several different stores in the same week is going to make it much more likely that you’ll overspend, even if you try to just stick to your grocery list (which you should always be doing as much as possible, if you’re really wanting to keep grocery costs low).
Also, at a place like Smith’s, they send you coupons pretty much weekly in the mail that are tailored to recent purchases that you’ve made. They also offer digital coupons that you can load right onto your shopper’s card that ring up automatically at checkout. As if that weren’t enough, you also get 10 cents off of gasoline for every 100 points you rack up in the store.
So although I don’t hardcore coupon anymore, I do clip out the pertinent coupons from what they’ve sent me in the mail, and I load up pretty much all the digital coupons they offer onto my card, which is basically the laziest way to coupon ever. (And bonus—Smith’s “doubles up” on coupons, so if you have a paper coupon from the mail and a digital coupon for the same item, you get both values deducted from the price of the item). The thing I like especially about Smith’s is that in some of their coupons they send by mail, they’ll give you coupons for free stuff (like free bread, eggs, cereal, or even frozen fruit), and they also will send you coupons on produce (like $1/off $4 worth of produce) or meat, which are hard to save money on when buying from grocery stores.
However, since moving to the next town over from where our local Smith’s is located, I found that it was unreasonable for me to make the trip out there every week, so I’ve gotten more familiar with my options that are closer (namely, Ridley’s and Walmart). After doing a price check comparison among the 3 stores I shop at most (Smith’s, Walmart, and Sam’s Club), I now know which stores to go to for certain commonly-purchased items. It would be unreasonable to do an extensive comparison for ALL the different foods that we buy, but I’m hoping that by having price-checked our 15 most commonly bought items, I can save some serious cash simply by making sure I get certain things only from certain stores.
Note: I HIGHLY recommend you do the price comparison exercise for yourself–I was pretty shocked to find that Smith’s, even with sales, was often more expensive than Walmart and Sam’s Club. Now I know to plan my trips there more carefully so that when I go, I’m only buying items that are part of a promotion and/or which I have coupons for (in addition to them being on sale).
8. Base your meals on what’s on sale, and learn to make substitutions when you run out of something.
This one can be hard sometimes (esp. since I’m not always super good at planning out meals in advance), but I will almost never buy something unless it’s for a good price. Take the other week, for example—I really wanted asparagus, but when I went to the store, it wasn’t on sale that week. Instead of spending $3.99/lb. for asparagus, I ended up buying some other vegetables that were on sale. Lo and behold, the next week the asparagus was on sale for 99 cents, and my craving for bargains AND asparagus was satisfied.
It pays to wait and be flexible, people.
Also–and this is a BIG one–resist the impulse to run to the store if you just started (or are about to start) dinner and realized you’re out of just one ingredient. Almost always, you can substitute another ingredient, leave the ingredient out, or borrow a small quantity of something from a neighbor, all of which will help to cut down on impulse spending. Take last night, for instance–the soup I was making called for a cup of heavy cream, which I thought I had. Come to find it, I only had about a 1/4 cup of cream, so I substituted in some whole milk with a heaping spoonful of sour cream, and the soup still turned out great.
Something that helped me to have the confidence to do this was the 100 Hours in the Kitchen project I did last year, which was where I concentrated on a different aspect of cooking each quarter of the year and made “rules” for myself to regularly adapt, change, modify, or even make up recipes as I was cooking every day. I used to be the kind of person that lived and died by the recipe, but by forcing myself to just do my best to make substitutions as necessary, I became a MUCH better and more adventurous cook, and we saved a LOT of money because I wasn’t running to the store every other night for “just one thing” (which usually turned into at least 3 or 4 things).
9. Limit treats.
This tip is not only good for your health, it’s good for your wallet—when I started looking a bit more into clean eating last year, I read a tip about only eating the sweets that you were willing to make yourself. While I’m not perfect about following that rule, I’d say that 90% of the sweets we eat are from recipes I’ve baked up in our kitchen, which has saved us a bunch of money (especially when we were able to not buy ice cream for about 4-5 months earlier this year!).
10. Don’t waste food.
It wasn’t until I started really watching how much we wasted that I realized how much money we were throwing away every month on spoiled, expired food. Before you go shopping, take some time to really go through your fridge and rotate things around so you can see what you actually need. Before making any meal, don’t just ask yourself what sounds good or what’s easiest—go to your fridge and see what needs to be used up the quickest. I believe that it was this tip almost more than any other that allowed us to get our grocery bill down to less than $140 last month.
Here are some more posts on not wasting food:
What tips do you have for saving money on groceries?