This post was featured on Epic Mommy Adventures.
This is supposed to be a budget blog, but as Zach has pointed out to me on numerous occasions, I don’t often acknowledge the “budget” aspect…and when I do, it’s not about food, it’s about a craft.
I do have a specific budget for my groceries, though. I am very strict about staying within that budget. If I wind up spending too much one week, I scale it back the next to balance it out. And, yes, it’s exhausting. But it has to be done.
The reason I don’t usually talk about my food costs here is often that I forget to add up the price tag on our food or I throw out my receipts before I have the chance.
So today I’m going to talk about the things Zach and I do to eat well, but still maintain a budget. Also, it doesn’t involve couponing. I’ll explain why in a moment.
1. Set a Budget
This is the first and most obvious step. To stay within a budget, you have to actually set one. 😛
How we came to a grocery budget was by adding up our expenses, which for us are:
- utilities (electricity and gas)
- car payments
- car insurance
- student loans
- renters insurance
- cable, Internet, & phone
- public transportation costs (Zach pays a fee to take the bus and train to work)
- blogging costs (though my blog brings in enough to pay for itself now)
We also like to have a sizable emergency fund, so we take out for that and whatever is left at the end of the month also gets put into it.
Once the cost for that is figured out, we subtract from our income and that’s our grocery budget. For us, it’s $75 a week.
2. Plan Meals
Meal planning is a VERY important part of staying within a budget. Every week before we go shopping, we look over the necessities to see what we need. Those are usually our “big ticket” items–toilet paper, cat litter, dish soap…basically, things that aren’t food. Then we look over last week’s menu, because sometimes there are things we didn’t make.
Every week, I try to make sure we have seven dinners planned, but that doesn’t mean we’ll need seven. Often, I make some kind of soup, which creates leftovers that last a few days. Zach and I are very strict about eating leftovers, so we usually only need 3-4 dinners a week (more on that in a moment). So whatever doesn’t get made is transferred over to the next week, which means I often only need to come up with 3-4 dinners.
We go through our cabinets to figure out if there is anything we can make that we already have the ingredients for. I keep everything for stuffed pepper soup and baked bean and sausage stew on hand at all times, so if I really want to save on groceries that week, all I have to do is buy green bell peppers and we can have soup for about three or four days.
For everything else, I either pull out a cookbook or go to Pinterest to find something we haven’t tried. I write down the ingredients (including how much is called for in the recipe, so I know how much to buy) and we stick to the list. That is VERY important. We don’t go wandering down aisles to see if there’s anything else we need, unless we approved certain aisles ahead of time (like if we say we don’t need to buy another box of tea this week, but it would be nice to try something new if there’s still room in the budget after we get everything else). Wandering up and down aisles only increases the temptation to buy a bunch of stuff you don’t need (especially if you have kids with you).
I have a friend who actually has the layout of the grocery store memorized (which made him extremely angry when they changed everything a couple years ago) and he writes his grocery list in the order each item appears in the store. Grocery shopping with him is a very quick and easy experience. He just grabs and runs. I’ve started implementing this and it is so much easier to get in, get out, and stay within my budget.
3. Shop Manager Specials
Manager Specials are why “once a month” grocery shopping would never work for me. I know a lot of people really like it, which is great, but it simply wouldn’t work in our house. Manager Specials are completely random and you never know when something will go on sale. Sometimes I like to just take a random trip to the store just to get check out specials. (Since the stores are really close to us, it doesn’t waste that much gas. And Zach and I sometimes walk, as well.)
I know a lot of grocery store chains don’t do this, but Kroger does and it helps us out a lot. They have pretty amazing things on special sometimes. Manager Specials are often left for items that aren’t selling as well as they thought it would or for something that is about to go past its “sell by” date (meat, for instance, is a huge one).
I used to work in the meat department of a grocery store, so I know that the “sell by” date doesn’t really mean anything. I’ve known meat departments to change the sticker so the date is different if the meat didn’t sell as quickly as they hoped.
4. Go Homemade
Which is cheaper, a loaf of bread or a bag of flour?
By the price tag, a loaf of bread is cheaper. But you can get about 4-5 loaves out of one bag of flour. Which makes the flour cheaper. (And if you’re buying in bulk, then all the better.)
One of the best things I ever did for our budget was learning how to cook. Buying ingredients and keeping them around has made it much easier to stay within budget, because we don’t have as much to buy each week as we used to.
If you’re not used to making things from scratch, I’d start small and build your way up. Try recipes with ingredients you know you can use a lot. My basic list of herbs and spices is a great place to start.
5. Make Inexpensive Substitutions
As I just said, one of the best things I ever did for our budget was learning how to cook. Not just how to throw things into a pot together, but how to make my own ingredients and figure out why a recipe called for a certain item.
For instance, I know that if a stew calls for butternut squash, what it really means is “starchy vegetable, but butternut squash is what we used.” Butternut squash can be really expensive, so I decided to just switch it out for sweet potatoes (or regular potatoes) because they’re also starchy. A recipe, after all, is less like a rule book and more like a set of guidelines. It can be altered to fit any dietary or financial need and desire. Some recipes just take more creativity than others. (Baking is the exception, as it is a completely different beast.)
Last week, I tried a new lasagna that called for sun-dried tomatoes. Which are really expensive where I live–$5.99 for a 7 ounce jar. Actually, that little jar is what inspired me to write this post, because Zach wasn’t sure if I should substitute, but I was NOT paying that much for sun-dried tomatoes. (Maybe that’s price is just the norm…but if that’s the case, I will sun dry my own tomatoes, thank you.)
Instead of sun-dried, I got a can of fire roasted tomatoes with garlic (which I could have roasted myself, but I decided to just try it with a can). It was a 15 oz can and it cost $1.10 for the brand name (the generic was $0.88). The jar was $0.85/oz while the can was only $0.07/oz. That’s a HUGE difference. That makes the jar twelve times as expensive as the brand name can (in ounces, of course).
And the lasagna was delicious–I wouldn’t change a thing.
What do you do to stay within a budget?