How I Save Money Each Month on Groceries Without Feeling Deprived
Despite my grocery-store phobia, I'm the grocery shopper, meal planner and chef in our home. It's not an easy task, but it's gotten easier since I learned a few money-saving tricks, like taking inventory of what I have before buying more, changing up our eating habits and buying less food more frequently.
Because every family's financial and nutritional situation is different, I don't think you should look at my tactics and follow them to the letter. Some might not work for you, but personally, I've found peaking at other people's grocery-shopping habits, menus and budgets helpful in defining my own financial priorities and finding a balance that works for my family. I mean, whether you're living just over the poverty-line (hey, there!) or you're pulling in six-figures annually, who of us couldn't benefit from a little budget-tidying and pantry organizing?
Without further ado, here's how I feed two picky kids and their hungry dad while saving money and still eating well.
- Plan meals a week ahead
- Have fresh groceries delivered
- Be sure to incorporate delivery tips into your budget
- Order pantry items online
- Create a per-check grocery budget instead of a monthly one
- Spend less on fresh items, but purchase them more frequently
- Eat less meat
- Cut back on alcohol
- Organize and label your pantry and refrigerator
Planning Meals Ahead
Here's why it helps me to save money: With two little kids and a husband who works during lunch, I have to stay on my toes with the meals. It's tempting to send him off on his lunch break to grab a sandwich but in our town, lunch out typically costs around $15 per person. Multiply that by each day he works during the week and we're looking at $300 a month for just his work lunches.
Pick a day of the week where you have an hour to spare, grab a notebook and plot out lunch (we are not above pb&j in this house) and dinner for the next five days, figuring you'll probably eat leftovers at least two days that week. Not only do I save money doing this, but I save my mind on days I just don't feel like coming up with a creative answer for "what's for dinner?"
Here's what that might look like for me any given week:
Dinner this Week
Macaroni + tomato juice and grilled cheese sandwiches with carrot sticks
Slow cooker BBQ chicken sandwiches, broccoli slaw and carrots and hummus
Lentil soup with pita and hummus
Chef salad and pesto pasta salad
Veggie burgers with chips and pesto pasta salad
Don't knock it until you try it. It's cheap and my whole family will eat it. For cheap elbow macaroni, it's about .99 cents a box and around $2 for a large can of tomato juice. Carrot sticks are also around $2 a bag and bread and cheese can run around $8 altogether for us (we like the expensive stuff...) but those are things that can also be used for breakfast and lunch as well.
Utilizing my slow cooker, especially on days that I work or have class makes it easier for me to make a meal we're all excited about and makes us less tempted spend money dining out. I buy the "organic" (I have no idea how organic this stuff is) chicken from our grocery store for about $10 for three breasts which is plenty for shredded chicken. We like the cheapie seeded white buns for these which are about $2 for a back and the broccoli slaw comes in a bag that you shake with dressing. Altogether that slaw costs about $7 to make, but will stretch into another meal. I'd use up the carrots from last night's dinner and either make fresh hummus or buy a big tub of it from our local warehouse store for about $4.
I try to incorporate stuff that doesn't last too long, like fresh-made or store bought hummus into several consecutive meals so it gets eaten up quickly and doesn't go to waste. Pita from our grocery store bakery is about $3 while I use a simple lentil soup recipe that costs about $6 for all ingredients (use vegetable broth if you want to be meat-free for this meal).
I try to make a big salad once a week to use up our produce before it turns. To add protein I add any leftover meat I've used this week (say, salami from lunchtime sandwiches) and some boiled eggs. A jar of pesto is $2 at target and a box of pasta is anywhere from .99 cents to $3 depending on what kind you like to use. Mix in more produce and you have two dishes that can also be eaten for lunch on the weekend.
Using up that pasta salad before it gets dry and gross with an easy vegetarian meal! If I have buns leftover from the BBQ chicken sandwiches I'll just use those, if not I might splurge on onion rolls. Use up the cheese from Monday's grilled cheese if I want to top the burgers. For veggies burgers, you can go handmade, which are delicious but I don't have that kind of time usually. I like a good ol' boca burger which I buy in bulk from the grocery store for about $1.10 per patty. Not bad!
Brown-Bag Lunch Ideas
I don't have a lot of head space to plan my husband's work lunches so my main goal is to make sure I'm not sending him with a bunch of sugary stuff and that there's a protein in there to get him through until dinner at home. This way, we're saving all of the money he's not pouring into the vending machines downstairs.
Here's some of the usual stuff (in combination, not all at once) in his lunch bag most afternoons:
- PB&J sandwiches (you can do this super cheap or upgrade it - I've been really into whole wheat sandwich thins and we like natural peanut butter and no-sugar added preserves to kick our PB&J game up a notch).
- Salami and cheese sandwiches, hold the condiments (it'll get soggy)
- Amy's brand soups and chili
- Brandless soups (these are $1.50 per carton and SO.GOOD - brandless(dot)com - I don't get anything if you buy from there, I just think more people need to know about this place!)
- Carrot sticks
- Raw, sliced peppers
- Slice strawberries with blueberries (or any combination of berries that are on sale)
- Greek yogurt cup (a bulk box of these are much cheaper at warehouse stores like Costco and Sam's Club - I buy Chobani and at my local grocery store they're .95 cents per cup. At Sam's they're .70 cents per cup and if they're on sale I can snag them for even less)
- Granola bars (Nature Valley, usually, Kashi when we're being luxurious)
- Leftovers from the dinner before, especially if I made a pasta salad or couscous dish
- Deli baked beans
- "Healthy" chips (like one with a ton of flax seeds or something) and salsa or guacamole (to do this cheaply I use reusable containers to stretch a bag of chips and a jar of salsa into several lunches as opposed to buying individual, more expensive "convenience" versions)
- Homemade frozen burrito (these are simple to make in big batches - all you need is to Google up a favorite recipe, look up how to fold the tortilla and grab some press-and-seal wrap and you're good to go!)
- Hard boiled eggs
- Cheese sticks
- Fruit leather
- Mini-bag of pretzels, Sunchips or popcorn
- Trail mix or mixed nuts and seeds
- A La Croix (still cheaper than grabbing a pop out of the vending machine)
- Bottled Pure Leaf brand tea
Saving on Fresh Groceries and Pantry Items
Saving on Fresh Groceries
I have all of my fresh groceries delivered (I use Shipt) with the exception of some items that I pre-order online and send my husband in for (at Sam's Club) about every other week. I know this wouldn't work for everyone but since grocery shopping overwhelms me, I save money by shopping through Shipt because it keeps me from just throwing stuff in the cart so I can get the heck out of there while spending way more than I planned.
I also like shopping this way because I can see the total before I check out and I'm able to look in my fridge before I submit my order to make sure I'm not ordering something I already have on hand. This saves on food waste!
Something that's tripped me up in the past that I'm trying to be more thoughtful about is budgeting in tips for my grocery delivery. I've always tipped but I've not always factored that tip into our total grocery budget. So, don't be like me. If you usually tip a particular percentage of the order total, make sure to add that in to the total spent when you're balancing your grocery budget.
Don't Buy Too Many Fresh Items at Once
I have a load of organic green onions rotting in my crisper right now.
Whoops. If only I'd take my own advice and buy less fresh food, more frequently to save money. When I'm using my head, I split my fresh-food shops into twice weekly events so that I'm getting just enough milk, fruit, veggies and cheese to last us for about three days. That way, it all gets eaten up and we have room again for another load of fresh food.
This also goes a long way in that not-feeling-deprived thing. If I buy a bunch of organic onions at say, $1.50 per bunch when I probably only needed one bunch to get me through the week, I could have spent the extra cash on a box of doughnuts to split with my fam. It all would have been consumed and no money - or food - would have been wasted.
Buy Pantry Items Online
For pantry items though, I like to shop online and have them shipped to my house because I can usually get them for a cheaper price (without the delivery service markup) and I don't have to tip on those item. My favorite stuff to purchase this way are things that aren't negatively affected by heat or cold weather, like instant rice, dry pasta, crackers, baking mixes and dried beans.
If I need something that's canned, or can get melty or freeze too easily like olive oil, canned soups, mayonnaise or jam I get those brought to me with my fresh groceries to keep them in a more stable climate and prevent dents.
Personally, I use Target for all of my pantry purchases these days because I get a discount for using my RedCard debit and their prices are competitive.
Another way I've recently started saving money on groceries is by labeling the life out of my refrigerator and pantry. I grabbed about fifteen of the plastic y-weave baskets and half a dozen food-safe refrigerator organization containers from Target for a total investment of around $175. I'm pretty sure that two months later, those containers and the labels I've attached have saved me well over that dollar amount.
That's because, instead of just winging it when I'm grocery shopping, I'm now able to easily peek into each basket or bin for each category, see what's missing and add it to my list before buying. I'm no longer spending too much money on things we already have a bunch of (Cheerios!) and forgetting to actually buy what we're running low on (ketchup, always).
Here's what I did and how it helped me:
How I Label My Fridge
Dressings and Condiments
Dips, Spreads and Sauces
This bin holds our cream cheese, bagels, almond milk and breakfast sausages. I usually buy about 4 dozen eggs at a time, since we use them for all kinds of stuff so those get stacked next to it.
Next to the breakfast container I have a smoothie container. They kind of go hand-in-hand! In here I store a tub of plain Greek yogurt, chia seeds, flax seeds, berries and orange juice or almost milk so we can quickly throw together a smoothie before heading out the door.
Here's where I stuff some hearty bread, cheese slices, salads and sides like beans to make grabbing lunch easy.
To make finishing off a salad or sandwich easy I have mustard, salad dressing, olives and sweet pickles gathered in one bin. Oftentimes when I'm shopping I just throw stuff like this in my cart by default, not realizing I already have two open jars of mayo hanging out. So labeling even these less-important aspects of our fridge adds up to big savings since I'm no longer overbuying perishable items.
This is where salsa, jellies, jams and any opened marinara jars hang out. Another way that labeling like this saves me money is that I can see what has been opened and needs to be used up. So, if I've opened a jar of pesto for turkey sandwiches two days ago, I know that I still have half a jar hanging out to dress up some tortellini for dinner that week.
How I Label My Pantry
Junk Food + Candy
Rice + Pasta
Jars + Cans
Potatoes + Onions
Here's where I keep mini-bags of chips and pretzels, granola bars, fruit leathers, trail mixes and more.
To make sure dad doesn't eat their stuff.
Cookies, pork rinds and gummy bears wait here for a night of poor decisions.
These are two things I tend to either purchase too much of or run out of at just the wrong time. Keeping them in a labeled basket helps me when it's time to make the grocery list. They're also cheap ingredients so if our budget is tight that week I can build meals around these items.
Jars and can tend to get out of control in my pantry. Keeping them in a labeled bin helps me to not overbuy stuff like pizza sauce and cans of tuna.
I actually don't store these together and you shouldn't either since they make each other turn faster. But in two separate baskets (I used wire ones so the potatoes and onions can breathe) store your root veggies to make a quick soup or breakfast hash.
(Kinda) Healthy Snacks I Keep Stocked
For those picky eaters I mentioned.
How I Make Sure My Picky Kids Get Healthy Snacks on a Budget
My two young daughters aren't adventurous when it comes to eating. Thankfully, they still like to nosh on a lot of different healthy options - as long as none of them are touching. Here's a list of affordable snacks I keep on hand to give to my kids when they get munchy or turn down the dinner I made:
- Hard boiled eggs. These are like .50 cents per dozen at my local grocery store so I can boil a dozen and have a protein rich, incredibly cheap snack at the ready.
- Cheese chunks. My kids prefer sliced cheese or cheese sticks but of course, those can be pricey. If those aren't in the budget, some weeks I buy an 8 ounce chunk cheese and just slice it up myself for them. I save about $2 per 8 ounces doing this.
- Baby carrots. These are more expensive than cutting carrots up yourself but the time I'd spend doing that is worth the extra dollar per bag I'm spending. I just keep them in my crisper drawer to make sure they stay fresh through the week and rinse them off and pat them dry before putting them in their plates.
- Homemade popcorn. Whirly-pop + canola oil + popcorn kernels + a sprinkle of salt = the yummiest, cheapest snack ever. My kids would go through a bag of microwave popcorn every day and that adds up. I keep kernals and oil on hand and a bottle of each (for a total of around $6) lasts me a solid month.
- Annie's Macaroni and Cheese. I know these are pricier than the other brands but if you snag them on sale you can get them for around .99 cents a box. Time to stock up!
- Sliced cucumbers. At about .60 cents per cucumber, I like to keep these in my crisper to cut up for my kids to add to their meals.
- Apple slices with cinnamon "because that's how grandpa makes it."
- Whatever fruit is on sale. Depending on the season, I like to vary what fruit I buy and whatever I buy they usually love.
- Peanut butter and saltine crackers. This is a favorite for my four-year-old. She doesn't waver on the saltines but I get the natural PB to cut down on her sugar.
- Salami. Not the healthiest or the cheapest but for two growing girls I like to grab the bulk container from Sam's which is much cheaper than the fresh-sliced stuff at the grocery store. Wrapped around a piece of cheese, this makes a good afternoon snack for the girls and whatever they don't eat I'll use for my husband's lunch sandwiches that week.
- Sliced ham. I don't mean deli/sandwich ham, I mean like a big ol' baked dinner ham. My kids love these so I'll buy one on sale and portion it out then freeze the portions. I can get about 15 meals for my kids out of one ham.
- Veggie Straws. Probably not much healthier than potato chips, but a handful goes a long way mixed with peanuts and almonds.
Splurging Smart So I Don't Feel Deprived
Something I've learned is that by shopping smart, not spending too much all at once and planning dinners ahead, I can usually afford even the foods that seem like a treat to us. It's all in how you balance it. If you buy five Halo Tops in the span of just one week then yeah, you're going to have budget issues and a lot of freezer burned ice cream. But buy smart - two Halo tops per check - and you can get what you want without waste.
Regardless, here's how I afford "splurgey" foods and beverages:
- Buy individually wrapped ice cream bars or ice pops instead of cartons of ice cream, that way things don't get freezer burned. If I do buy a carton of ice cream I'll buy cones to go with it so it gets eaten faster.
- Shop at warehouse stores for carbonated water. My husband goes through a LOT of LaCroix which is .33 cents per can at our Sam's Club vs. .46 cents per can at the grocery store (and it's usually on sale at the warehouse store too!)
- Stock up on convenience food when it's on sale. I'm a sucker for Amy's cheese enchiladas and casserole bowls, especially if I'm extra busy with work and school and just want something that I can throw in the microwave without having to take Tums afterward. But those things are pricey. Sometimes Target has them on sale for like a dollar off and when they are - look out.
- Cut down on alcohol. HOLD ON. Hold on. I know. But just like LaCroix and frozen single-serve enchiladas aren't a nutritional necessity, cutting back on certain things leaves room for other things. Scaling back on your weekly alcohol budget leaves room for a couple boxes of Reese's Peanut Butter Cup cereal and the chance to shake up your treats each week.
- Don't buy the big jug or box just because it's less per ounce. For instance, I like to drink coconut water and the big container of it is cheaper per ounce than the smaller one - but still more expensive up front. The thing is but that stuff doesn't keep well and I always ends up dumping the last quarter out. Buy small and if you run out get more and know that it's fresh.
How Do You Save on Groceries?
Let me know in the comments below! I'm always looking for new ideas on how to save money and get creative with my grocery budget.
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Kierstin Gunsberg