27
Feb
2010

Reader Question: How to Determine a Grocery Budget?

02/27/2010. This post may contain affiliate links. Read my Disclosure Policy.

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This is a question that I get asked quite frequently and I have a few tips that might help you to figure out what a good weekly budget is for your family.  I thought I would also share how our weekly budget works.

The short answer to this question is it depends.  I don’t like blanket budgets because every family is going to be different.  For example I do not have double coupons in my area so my prices are higher than others might pay.  I also have 2 in diapers- so that is an added expense for us each week.  Personally my philosophy is that you just want to live within or below your means. I could certainly spend less but I try to have a varied menu each week.  Also I don’t have any of the great grocery stores like Kroger, Publix and Food Lion that seem to have exceptional sales from week to week.

When we moved to California and I started learning to coupon we had an extremely tight budget.  I made $30 per week work for us including every single thing from diapers to groceries to cleaning supplies.  Let me tell you that was a struggle!  But we both moved here without jobs so we needed to save every penny to avoid dipping into our savings.  Once we were both employed, I increased the budget to $50.  That includes pretty much everything from dog food to toiletries.  The two items I do not include are diapers and formula.  This seems to be a very workable budget for us but I would encourage you to find the range that seems to work for your family.

Here are a few tips to get started:

1. Evaluate how much you currently spend each week. Aim to reduce that by 10% every week without sacrificing too much quality in your menus.  If you are new to couponing this is the easiest way to immediately see a difference in your weekly budget.

2. Pay attention to waste. Before I started my frugal adventure we would go through the fridge every week and toss a ton of food.  Produce that was past its prime, items that expired etc…  Now I aim to stop the waste entirely.  So I always think every week about what we will really eat.  It doesn’t mean I am stingy but I don’t buy 4 pounds of bananas if we can only eat 2 pounds.  I also try to freeze as much as I can.  So this week we had a bag of potatoes that needed to be used.  I went ahead and mashed them up and made a casserole that went into the freezer for a future meal.  If you are regularly throwing away items than you are essentially throwing out your money.  You might try scaling back a little on what you buy or try to come up with creative ideas to use those items up before they expire!

3.  Start menu planning! This alone should help to save quite a bit each week as you are planning ahead for what you might need rather than just buying whatever looks appealing when wandering the grocery aisles.

4. Get creative with recipes! I almost never follow a recipe exactly.  More often than not they require a long list of ingredients. I try to omit or substitute as many items as I can.  For example, if a recipe calls for Provolone cheese and you have Mozzarella on hand- can you substitute that ingredient?  On my menu this week I wanted to try a homemade pizza recipe with Butternut Squash and Pine Nuts.  Those two ingredients would have killed my budget so instead I found great deals on fresh mozzarella and Roma tomatoes.  Our family had a nice roasted tomato and mozzarella pizza instead.  Just as good for a fraction of the price.

5. Be honest with yourself. I would really encourage you to be honest about how much time you have and are willing to spend from week to week.  If you can spare one hour per week to prepare and organize coupons I would think you can really get your budget down.  You will likely need to spend a little extra time at the store as well if you are using coupons, but in the end you will save yourself from making extra runs to the store to grab those last minute ingredients anyway.  If you simply can’t spare that time, or you don’t want to invest the time, you can still reduce what you spend by buying low and stocking up.  See my vlog about this HERE.  You will likely wind up spending more than what a couponer might spend- but every little bit counts so even just a small difference in your budget can really add up over time.

And now for you!  What tips do you have for finding a workable budget?

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

karen February 27, 2010 at 2:21 PM

Eating healthier has def. helped our budget. Instead of drinking so much juice (even 100% juice), we have increased drinking water (using Brita pitcher instead of bottled:) Using natural versus canned (pureed carrots instead of canned pumplin:) Making pancake mix instead of buying Bisquick. These small changes can really make a difference.

jinkiesdaphne February 27, 2010 at 3:35 PM

i figure mine out like this-my monthy income, minus mandatory monthly bills, minus gas $$ to get me to the job to pay those monthly bills=what i base my monthly food budget on….if i can go under that…whoo hoo…i buy a pack of gum ;)

Whitney February 27, 2010 at 4:41 PM

Charlene, I just want to say how much I love this article and your blog! This is exactly the type of stuff I love reading about. Something that truly helps me with MY budget. This article alone made me realize I can have one solid number I aim for every week instead of a budget amount for groceries, then one for household, then one for kids.. etc, etc. I’m coming to realize that try as I might, an envelope budget does not work for us! But sticking to a pre-determined dollar amount for EVERYTHING purchased that week… I can sure do that! Thanks for everything, you are inspiring :)

Kim February 27, 2010 at 6:22 PM

Charlene,
I’m so thankful that you don’t just stick a dollar amount out there for everyone. It is important that we realize it is different for each of us. With three seventeen year olds and a fourteen year old, you can imagine that we go through food, and snacks! So of course my food budget is higher than someone with only two ten year olds. To save money on snacks I buy our veggies in bulk and bag them up. I also stock up when you can get granola bars cheap. And a big money saver is that we bake all our bread from scratch, using the bread maker, it is really easier than you’d think, but I don’t care for the way the breadmaker crust turns out, so I pop it in the oven to bake. Picked my breadmaker up at a yardsale for $5.

Tabatha February 27, 2010 at 7:34 PM

What I do is if I have to buy say celery that week for a soup I’m making I’ll take the rest of that celery and dice it up, flash freeze it and then throw it into a Ziploc bag for later use. Like this week we had stuffed peppers for supper one night, well the way I had to cut the peppers to use them I had a lot of pepper left, instead of throwing it away I diced it up and froze it. Now we have diced bell peppers to use in omelets or whatever we please! I also do this with onions and mushrooms! I also have a weekly budget that I stick to roughly 3 weeks out of the month- that 4th week is my meat buying week so my budget is slightly higher than the others. This has helped us tremendously! I love the tip about menu making- this is essential to really save money!

Charlene February 27, 2010 at 7:35 PM

Well every attempt I have made with my breadmaker has turned out horribly. So you need to come over and give me a lesson Kim!

Otherwise I HATE when people feel bad because they spend more than me or whatever. There is just no possible way of saying this is what you should spend. Totally varies and the bottom line is if you can afford what you spend than that is all that counts.

Charlene February 27, 2010 at 7:39 PM

Tabatha I do the same thing although I haven’t tried the mushrooms. I LOVE frozen peppers because they are so easy to toss into virtually anything- really good on little pizzas too. I puree veggies too sometimes and sneak them into things like boxed mac and cheese- cauliflower is perfect or squash. Sadly I have to sneak veggies more to my husband than toddler :)

Maelynn February 27, 2010 at 10:51 PM

I agree about the menu planning. That has helped those quick runs to the store for an ingredient that I need because I didn’t think ahead about what I was going to make. I also make a list and really try to stick to it. If you bring the list it helps you not walk up and down the aisle looking for what you need and then seeing 5 other items that you didn’t need. thanks for this post.

cjs February 28, 2010 at 1:12 AM

Thanks for this GREAT post! #5 is really key…I have been trying to get my sister into ‘couponing’ to save her some money (that she is always complaining she doesn’t have enough of), but she never makes time to sit with me & listen to what I have learned. Tabatha – thanks for the helpful hint on the veggies…I will have to remember to do that. We always end up throwing out 1/2 of the celery because I only ‘needed’ a couple of stalks for something. (I know…ouch…wasteful $$).

Heidi February 28, 2010 at 9:17 AM

Thanks for all of your tips and website! I thought of myself as a frugal person before I discovered “couponing”, but now I am saving almost 50% more than when I was just frugal! As far as sticking to a budget, I have found that the cash system works really well for me- I take out our two week grocery/everything budget in cash and when it’s gone, I stop buying- no matter how good the deal is or what we “need”. I am also really motivated by the simple weekly spreadsheet that I am keeping that tracks what we have spent and the percentage saved. I have set a goal for myself to save at least 75% this year. For some reason, that motivates me even when I am feeling weak and ready to buy something not on sale.
I know different things motivate different people- hopefully this will help someone. Thanks again for posting all of the deals you find and sharing your tips!

Dawn March 8, 2011 at 2:37 PM

Hi gals- my best kept secret is my food dehydrator. I spend a lot of money on fresh fruit and veggies and I do not want to waste them. Whatever is getting soft or old gets cut up and placed in the dehydrator- herbs, apples, tomatos carrots, whatever! I then bag them up and add the veggies to soups, stews, lasanga, whatever I make. The dried fruit we eat as snacks. I even make my own jerkey. I found mine at a yard sale, but I know you can get a decent one for $40 or so. Mine has paid for itself over and over.

Liz March 25, 2011 at 6:01 PM

You brought up recipes and I thought I might as well share my secret to cheap (but yummy!) dinners. It’s a cookbook called “500 Fast & Fabulous 5-Star 5-Ingredient Recipes.” I live off of this book because all of the recipes have, as it says, 5 ingredients, and they are usually cheap items that most people already have. There’s a picky eater in my house, and he will eat most of the things I make out of this book. Also, the author is coming out with a new 5 ingredient book (all new recipes, yay!) at the end of April.

Samantha April 25, 2011 at 10:43 AM

Why would you have the expense of dog food (as well as all other dog-related expenses like the vet/heartworm meds) if you only had such limited funds to shop with…in California, no less- where groceries are astronomical?

Charlene April 25, 2011 at 10:47 AM

Samantha, I don’t understand your question. Are you asking why I have a dog? I don’t understand the limited funds question either. Using coupons is not a matter of what you can afford, it is a matter of choosing how to spend my money. It is true that things simply cost more in California but I show week after week after week on the blog how to live well on a budget regardless of where you live.

Trish April 25, 2011 at 12:44 PM

I have been a coupon queen for years and my kids would say when they were younger …. If my mom doesnt have a coupon for it we aint gonna buy it…. I made a game out of coupons for them to help me on the row I was on to find the best deals and I remember one time my son chucking 4 packs of charmin to me to put in the basket. An older lady came around the corner and was Agast at our tossing of merchandise. then another lady came and said it is a good thing that you are doing teacching your kids to shop with coupons and having fun with it besides who are you hurting.. NO ONE.. Keep it up! And when you make the rewards for the family it is good too.. take your coupon totals Printed on most receipts today and choose an amount to write to yourself out of that amount 50% say and put it into a saving account now keep it up for a year and see what you are saving then do something for the family with that money it get everyone on board to save money with a goal.. Maybe something big… Disney trip, cruise, HAWAII, RIVER FUN, Raging waters Park, Beach for a week in the summer You can save it up and the rewards are evident for the family and they want to help you save because the rewards are for their enjoyment as well…. I feel couponing is a job that has wonderful perks

Cynthia May 12, 2011 at 11:18 AM

I live in Southern California and am a new mom. I have some knowledge about coupons, but I haven’t been using them conisistently. I really have financial issues that I need to resolve so I know that coupons are a way to help. I am overwhelmed at the prospects and I would really like to know what the first few things I should do are so I have some direction. I barely find time to be online between playtimes and nursing my daughter, but so far only 1 store in my area doubles coupons and I need to call the rest to find out. I just would appreciate being pointed in the right direction with an easy plan to follow. I know I can kick some coupon a&#. I am embarrassed to say that sticking to a budget is something that i have never been able to do. and it shows. at 33 we have no credit, no savings, and I am scared. I need to be the example for my family. help!!

rosy May 23, 2011 at 8:05 AM

I am just starting out couponing. It’s just been getting to much. We have 1 income, 6 in house hold, and all the family comes to us when ever they can budget. Which keeps us in a bind. I have a new born so i figure i would try to cut cost at least on us. So I will take any help i can get.

Thanx

Kim August 24, 2011 at 6:36 PM

I enjoy reading blogs like your yours, but unfortunately I do wonder about the quality of the food products when people are on extreme budgets (like yours of $30 a week!!!) Does health play a role in meal planning?

Charlene August 24, 2011 at 8:09 PM

Kim, I think you have a point there is certainly a lot more deals on junk food. But I also think you need to be very careful about assuming people are unhealthy. We are not unhealthy. My kids have a lot of organic foods, they exclusively drink organic milk and eat organic eggs. They get a lot of fresh foods and things like apple juice are considered treats in our home. You are welcome to check my personal shopping trips. I post them weekly. I actually find that it is cheaper to buy fresh food than junk food even with coupons. For example 2lbs of strawberries are $2.00 at my grocery store this week which is the same price as 2 bags of chips on sale and with coupons. I can get 4 watermelons for the same price as one bag of chips. Last week I got a cantaloupe and a black angus steak totally free. I don’t consider that junk food.

I also post my menu plan each week so you can see what we eat. But with that being said, sometimes I am a little grossed out when I see what other people eat :P 640 candy bars or 200 packages of pasta and 100 cheap microwave pizzas does not seem appealing to me. Also we switched to organics and I increased my budget to $50. On $30 it isn’t hard to eat good food it is just hard to get all the things you need. Like we could have broccoli every night on that budget but I wouldn’t be able to get a lot of fresh herbs or cheeses or things to make a really nice meal.

Staci October 2, 2011 at 4:30 AM

Three months ago I gave birth to my third child and while on maternity leave I worked on my coupon binder and did a lot of reading about how others have saved money through coupon clipping. Every Sunday morning I sit down and go thru my coupons and the sale flyer trying to match up deals. I appreciate all the deal matching you do for us on this site. It has really helped to change my mindset when going to the grocery store. I no longer wander without purpose buying food that ends up going bad because I didn’t meal plan. About mid-week, Wednesday or Thursday we have “left-over” night. Last week I was really strapped for cash so we ate from the pantry, made it through with some delicious meals and now I have some new found room in the cupboards and freezer! I will continue to perfect the art of finding the best deals and feeling good about what I have bought and spent at the super market. Thanks for all the great helpful articles and keep them coming!

Renita Morton November 7, 2012 at 11:52 AM

My husband (#2), my son and I finally got our own place in April this year. Right away, I started trying to figure out how to save every possible penny that I could. At that time (and until August), I was working full time as a shift leader in a fast food restaurant. I was fired, and now things are even tighter. I was the bread-winner. My husbands income (and the child support I get for my son) pay rent and bills, but we are now on food stamps. I have been making my own laundry detergent since we moved in (it comes to about a penny a load, which is really cheap). Now, I’ve started couponing, cutting corners (little ones), canning, drying and freezing. I love that there are so many sites out there for people like me. Thanks so much for all you do!

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