Are you tired of never seeming to have a grocery budget that stretches far enough? Is the constant rising cost of food hitting you in your already black and blue wallet? Or would you just like more money to put into your savings but don’t have anywhere in your budget to take from? Are you sick of trying to figure out what’s for dinner every single night? Do you have problems coming up with meals before heading to the store (or even after you’re already there)? Or how about…do you hate getting home from the store only to realize you forgot to get something that you needed?
If you answered “yes” to even one of these questions, I have the solution for you! By using these 3 simple steps, you will not only save money, but you’ll no longer have to worry about deciding what to cook every day of the year, and you will reduce waste of not only product but finances as well.
I remember the very first time I went grocery shopping as an adult, living on my own. I had a budget. I had a set amount to spend on food, and that was to last me until the next payday two weeks later.
It was a very exciting trip! After all, I was now a grown-up, doing grown-up things. So I put my big girl pants on, and headed to the store to load up on two weeks worth of groceries. I walked down every aisle, looked at every item (seriously, the time in the store was more than a couple of hours, and I didn’t even have kids back then to make it take so long!). I didn’t have a clear plan so-to-speak for a menu, but I did have some ideas in my head of foods I would like to make. Of course, trying to remember all of the ingredients for two weeks worth of foods mixed in with gazing at every single box, can and jar, and inevitably getting side-tracked by all of the yummy snack foods, left it a bit difficult to remember what all I was even there to get.
Growing up my mother taught me many things before I left the nest. I could cook, clean, do laundry, pay bills, balance the checkbook, iron, and record my favorite shows straight from the tv to the VCR – cause THAT’S the awesome technology we had back then. (How do you like that, kids of today?!)
I was essentially set up for successful living on my own long before I ever graduated High School. Mind you, the one thing my mother never taught me was how to grocery shop on a budget. Why, you ask? Because she never had to. My mother taught me how to walk up and down each aisle. She taught me how to put the can of Pringles – that was a want, not a need – in the cart with the roast for dinner on Friday. She taught me that if your taste buds are telling you at that very moment to get that Chunky Chocolate Chip ice cream from Blue Bunny, get it. And if your taste buds are not telling you at that very moment, get it anyway. Because we all know they’ll be telling you that hours after you get home from the store. I was taught that you fill up your cart with all of your wants and needs, but if you realize three days later that you are missing the tomato paste you need for tonight’s dinner, no big deal. Just run into town and get it real quick.
Bless her heart, she taught me a lot. She taught me more than many leave the house with. But, grocery shopping on a budget was something I would have to teach myself.
I gloated all the way to the car, all the way back to the apartment, all while I unloaded the groceries and packed them away in the fridge and pantry. I had done it! I had officially gone grocery shopping on my own, not paid for by my parents, not for food being taken to my childhood home, but for my very own meals for the next two weeks. I was so proud of myself!
About four days in to my two week supply, I realized it wasn’t going to last. There was not enough to make meals for the next ten days. Oh, there was enough “food” to get by – if you thought eating a bag of potato chips counted as a meal. Or maybe having a bag of M&Ms would be more suitable? Oh, or maybe those last few days before you get paid again you can just have bread and water? Because that’s all there was going to be.
I was stunned. It was, by far, a rude awakening. Here I was, having spent all of my grocery money on a cart FULL of food, and yet I essentially had nothing to show for it. Except a bank account that didn’t have any other wiggle room to get more groceries.
I ended up taking a few dollars out of my gas money budget to buy a package of sandwich meat. You’d better believe I can make you a turkey and cheese sandwich in just about every which way you could imagine!
It was a hard lesson to learn, especially after all of that pride I had to swallow. But, I learn best when I fall hard. And I learn quickly. I started a routine for grocery shopping that has saved me hundreds each year. That was over a decade ago, and I still use it to this day. It may seem like too much work in the beginning if you’re used to just getting in the car and going to the store. But trust me. It will change your life!
Step 1: Create Your Menu
I start by making out a menu. Granted, I don’t worry about “scheduling” meals for specific days. What I do worry about is making sure I plan as many days as I need to. For instance, my husband’s paydays are scheduled on the 5th and 20th of every month. So, from the 5th to the 19th, I know I have 14 days to plan for. Then, I’ll go shopping on the 20th to cover from then until the 5th.
Don’t just plan dinners. You still have to eat two other times during the day, right? And whether you work out of the home or not, you will save hundreds each year by simply taking your lunch to work or eating at home instead of eating out. Also, make sure you plan breakfasts. I don’t know about you, but getting towards the end of the pay period and realizing your cupboards are empty and you have nothing for breakfast, isn’t the greatest way to start out my morning.
Shopping only once or twice a month has a huge impact itself on your family’s budget! By purposefully planning, you eliminate the need for extra trips to the store, thus saving not only in the food department but the gas department as well. And with gas prices that are constantly at risk of going up, it’s a department we could all use some savings in.
Hey! What about eating out?! There’s room for eating out in this plan, too. Our family typically only eats out once in a blue moon. This includes fast-food trips. It’s simply much more cost-effective to eat at home. However, if I know we are going to eat out during the month, I simply write down “eat out” in one of my meal slots. It could be as simple as ordering a pizza or as nice as going out to our favorite Japanese Steak House, but I still mark a spot for it. This also helps us BIG TIME in the money saving department. Knowing the groceries are in the fridge, they have been paid for, and not wanting them to go to waste is a big encouragement to keep the cooking at home. In a way, it forces us to be accountable for what we spend, instead of being frivolous or wasteful.
However, things come up. A doctor appointment ran entirely too late or you ended up being stuck in town much longer than anticipated so you do a quick run through Taco Bell, and bada bing bada boom, dinner’s done. The best thing you can do in a situation like this is to freeze whatever can be frozen from tonight’s planned meal, and make sure to put that on your next meal list. If the meal you planned for that night has things that will go bad quickly and can’t be frozen (ex: a salad), simply pick something else off of your menu that can be saved to move to the next meal list. Again, it’s about making sure you aren’t wasting what’s in your cupboard or your wallet.
I like to keep my menu list on the fridge where I can easily see my options and choose a meal based on that day’s mood and schedule.
Step 2: Create Your Shopping List
Once you have your meals planned out, now it’s time to make your list. I find that separating my list into categories makes it much easier to get in and out of the grocery store without having to backtrack down aisles. This also has helped to keep the junk food out of our house. After you’ve shopped this way a few times, you’ll get the hang of where your most common items are in your local store, and it will make your trip go so much faster. Yes, even with kids!
I like to separate my list into these categories: Non-food, produce, bread, dry goods, frozen, meat, and dairy. This helps to make sure you only walk down the aisles you have to and don’t waste any time shopping for things not on your list. With the list and a bit of self-control, you’ll be on your way to saving money in your first trip to the store!
One by one, go through all of the meals on your list, writing down every ingredient you need for each meal. This includes breakfasts and lunches. I also write down snack items because I have three children that get a healthy snack every day between lunch and dinner.
Be exact with your list making. For instance, don’t write down “salsa” if you need 8 oz to make your Chipotle Chili Cornbread Bake. Write down “8 oz salsa”. The same goes for your meat. Don’t write down “boneless, skinless chicken breasts”. Tally up all of the boneless, skinless chicken breasts you will need to cover all of the meals requiring them, and write that down. Being exact will help in the savings and waste department like you wouldn’t believe! (Obviously, you can’t always buy packages with the exact amount of what’s needed. That’s okay! Just make sure you freeze the extra meat or keep the 9 oz jar of salsa in the fridge. You can use that extra meat and ounce of salsa as stockpile for future meal planning, and it will make that next trip to the store that much cheaper!)
Once you have all of your ingredients listed in their proper categories, you can go through your pantry, cupboards and fridge and cross off anything on your list that you already have. This will help eliminate extra spending on items already in your stock as well as ensure food doesn’t go to waste by having duplicate purchases.
Now, write down any non-food items you need from the store. Maybe you’re almost out of toilet paper? Or maybe you only have a few loads left of laundry detergent? How about food for your pet? Anything that’s not food related goes here. I always shop for these items first so that I don’t have frozen things melting in my cart while I go to the other end of the store to get dog food and search for that perfect scent of deodorant (which always takes me for-ev-er!)
Take your list and a pen or pencil with you to cross things off as you go. This will help you see those items stand out that you might have missed. I like to make my list right before I head to the store. That way, all the items are fresh in my mind, and I generally don’t have to look at my list to remind myself of what I need.
Step 3: Shop Purposefully
Make it a goal to go in and only get what is on your list. Nothing more. No wandering. No gazing. No “window shopping”. No “Oh, I’ll just add this one thing to my cart that’s not on my list.” Just don’t do it. If you want to develop the habit of sticking to a budget and a list, stick to it from the very first time. Because, inevitably, that one thing will turn into two, then three, and so on. Budget = blown.
Also, the more times you do this, the more familiar you will get with the prices of items. Why? Because you aren’t aimlessly shopping. You are purposefully shopping. You start to recognize prices as well as noticing how much each trip costs. I can generally estimate within $10-15 what my end cost will be based on the meals that I have put together before I even leave the house. This also helps our family stay on budget because I know what meals work well together cost-wise. And it really comes in handy with the ever-increasing cost of goods!
Want to develop a list of meals so that brainstorming your menu isn’t so hard? Type each of your menu items into a Word document, put them in a notebook or in an app on your phone. Whatever method works best for you, put your menu meals there. I suggest breaking them up into categories of breakfast, lunch and dinner. After a month, you now have a list of 30-31 meals! After two months, so many more! Then, as you build your meal index, you can easily open up your document or notebook or app and pick what suits your mood. No thinking. No planning. No frustration trying to come up with another meal idea. You’ve already done it, and now it’s paying off.
Give the menu planning and list making a go for 30 days. Only get what you wrote down. Look at the money you’ve spent on average in the past 3 months on trips to the grocery store, eating out, etc. After your first 30 days, compare what you’ve spent to what your average was before the list making. Then, watch as the months roll by and the money saved keeps building!
To help you get started, I’ve created a FREE printable grocery list. Play with it, alter it to fit your own needs, or use it exactly as it is. Next month, I’ll delve further into how I add price matching to my grocery list to help me save even more, so stay tuned for that. In the meantime, come back and let me know how the list is changing your life!