Do you have a monthly grocery budget that’s working for you? Too many people head to the supermarket, start shopping and know that they are finished when their cart is “full”. Without a workable budget to guide your shopping, you’re probably spending more than you need every month with much of it going to waste.
Unfortunately, for lots of people the idea of budgeting is either scary (will I need to know spreadsheets?) or restrictive (I just want to buy what I want). It doesn’t have to be either one. A grocery budget is simply a goal to help you plan for what’s really important. You can treat it like a game where the object is to see how little you can spend while still providing nourishing and tasty meals and snacks for your family and the prize is putting that extra money toward another goal.
Everyone’s spending on food is different. While experts suggest a rough guideline of 9-15% of your income, so many factors can affect these numbers. Is your family large or is it just you? Do you mostly dine out or cook at home? Do you choose organic, fresh foods or processed and prepared ones? Is one or more of your family on a special diet? Do you try the latest foodie recipes or do you rotate the same basic dishes? And of course, where and how you shop can affect your spending drastically.
Setting your grocery budget
The first and most critical step in finding the budget that’s right for you is to track what you’re spending now. Wait, you might be saying, how is this going to save me money? Well, if your monthly food costs are currently $500 and you set your new budget for $250, you’ll only be setting yourself up for failure. Meet yourself where you are and start reducing gradually from there. Can you get to $250? Maybe you can, but you want to do it in a way that you don’t feel deprived.
To track your spending, you don’t need a spreadsheet (although you certainly can use one) but you do need a record of some sort. It can be a notebook, a spreadsheet, a Word document, a software program like Quicken, an online program like Mint.com or an app on your phone. Whichever method you choose, you need to record every purchase amount and divide it into at least a few categories: groceries, eating out (restaurant, fast food, takeout/delivery), and household items (paper goods, aluminum foil, cleaning supplies, batteries, lightbulbs, etc). You’ll want to know how much of your budget is groceries versus eating out, because while you may have a separate budget for each, the numbers may fluctuate but should have the same total budget for food. And household items tend to be higher ticket items that are not necessarily purchased every month, so these numbers may vary quite a bit but you’ll want to include them and average them out for a monthly amount.
Once you have your spending added up for a month, or better yet a couple of months, you are ready to set your first budget goal. A realistic number would be a 5-10% reduction in costs. So for our example of $500, the budget goal for the first month might be $450-475. Once you’ve succesfully reduced your spending to that level, set a new budget goal reducing costs another 5-10%. Continue this process month after month until you honestly feel your grocery budget can’t go any lower without abandoning the nutrition, quality and taste standards of your family. And make a plan for the money you’ll be saving, because it’s easier to cut back if you have a positive goal you’re working towards.
Sticking to your grocery budget
Setting your grocery budget goal is the easier part. Sticking to the budget goal is where you need your full arsenal of tips and tools, a bit of effort and a dash of creativity.
Here are just some of the ways to reach your budget goal:
- Plan your meals for the week (more on this coming soon). This doesn’t mean you have to know which meal you’re going to cook each day, but have ingredients on hand between your pantry, your freezer, and your shopping list in order to make enough meals for the week. Shopping without a plan greatly increases your chances of buying prepared foods, coming home with not enough meals, or resorting to eating out. Don’t forget to plan for snacks, too.
- Figure out your cost per meal and try to reduce it one meal at a time. Especially if you have a regular rotation of dishes you cook, calculate out the cost of your ingredients and see where you might substitute and save. This might mean going meatless once in awhile (try replacing with beans or lentils) or simply substituting store or sale brands. It might mean cooking in bigger batches and freezing portions for other weeks.
- Track prices to know the sales cycle and get the best prices.
- Get organized with your coupons and identify new sources for discounts.
- Consider where you shop and whether changing stores or simply adding a quick side trip might gain you some bargains.
- Plan your grocery list around the weekly sales and your coupons. But be flexible when you get to the store in case you find that the unit prices or store brand prices show that non-sale items are a better buy.
- Buy fresh and in-season items to avoid wasting food at home.
- Accept that impulse buys and “mistakes” will happen once in awhile, but don’t let them derail you. If you already have one impulse item in you cart, don’t add another unless you take the first one out. Decide what’s really important.
- Don’t wait until the end of the month to check how you’re doing against your budget goal. If it’s only one week into the month and you’ve spent half your budget, you’ll want to know that you need to slow your spending.
- At the end of the month, check your progress and if you didn’t make your goal, see if you can figure out why and develop strategies for next time. Did you eat out more than planned? Buy too many items not on the list? Did you have a special event or party that put a dent in that month’s budget? Adjust, make a goal for the next month, and move forward.
If you have a grocery budget, share what methods help keep you on track. And if you don’t, what’s holding you back?