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Step-by-Step Guide to Grocery Shopping on a Budget

Cynthia is a digital marketer, writer, and artist. She writes about a variety of topics, especially digital marketing, languages & culture.

Screenshot of my Advantage Mail containing deals on things I buy frequently.

Screenshot of my Advantage Mail containing deals on things I buy frequently.

You Don't Have to Sacrifice Quality When Shopping on a Food Budget

These days, shopping on a budget is more important than ever. While I do clip some coupons, I often find that they advertise processed foods. Plus, it takes A LOT of time. I still want to eat well without blowing my budget and spending large amounts of time clipping coupons and matching them up with the sales.

I have developed a system that works for me: It’s a happy balance between sticking to my budget, eating well, and still having a life. It has been a process of trial and error, but I feel like when I shop, I maximize my savings while eating healthfully.

This system works well for singles, couples, and even larger families.

Step One: Start With Your Grocery Store Email

I live in the Southeast, and my grocery store chain has an email program called Advantage Mail. Basically, when you sign up using your customer card, you get emails once weekly with deals tailored for you, based on what you usually buy. I begin my grocery list with the nine items featured in the email. Then, I click through to the link for that week’s flyer.

Advantages of doing this:

  • You can quickly jot down items you normally buy on sale and plan on stocking up. If you stock up, then you hopefully won’t have to buy those particular items until they go on sale again. This can really save lots of money.

Extra tips: This process probably takes me about five minutes—not much time.

Step Two: Use Weekly Ads to Create a Grocery List

I then create my list based on what foods are on sale. I also list staples that I know I will need.

When I make my list, I try to list items based on their location within the store. This makes it less likely that I will forget something. For example, if I need milk, cheese, and eggs, I’ll put those together since they’re in the same general vicinity at the store.

Advantages of doing this:

  • There's nothing more annoying when you've covered 3/4 of the store, and you realize you have to go all the way back to get an item you forgot—that's why I try to cluster needed items together.
  • If you need a few items that are not on sale (which hopefully won't happen much), since your list is made mostly of things that are on sale, you're likely not to blow your budget.

Extra tips:

  • The more I plan to cook from scratch, the more I know a meal will contain fewer preservatives and unknown, unpronounceable chemicals. Sometimes doing this can be a little more expensive because you have to get more items. For me, the health benefits outweigh the savings. I also know that it's often significantly less expensive to cook from scratch—using dried instead of canned beans, for example.

This process probably takes me about 30 minutes to complete.

I'm gathering my materials to make my list.  I have my weekly sales flyer open on my computer, I've got my calendar, my menu laid out, as well as some store coupons.

I'm gathering my materials to make my list. I have my weekly sales flyer open on my computer, I've got my calendar, my menu laid out, as well as some store coupons.

Step Three: Plan Meals Out for TWO Weeks

I begin by getting out my calendar and looking at what events I have going on in the next two weeks. Thus, I can plan my meals accordingly. I don’t want to be making a casserole when I’m getting home at 9 p.m. I’d rather make a quick and easy soup.

I get a separate sheet of paper and write the dates down for the next two weeks. Using items I know to be on sale, I figure out my meals. I also check to see what I already have in the pantry. I add anything I might need for a particular recipe on my menu to my grocery list.

When I plan my meals, I try to keep in mind that soups, casseroles, and chili dishes are quite economical because I can stretch them out for two or three days. I often pack leftovers in with lunches, making me the envy of my coworkers. Other than making the grocery list itself, this part is probably the most time-consuming. It’s worth it, though.

Advantages of doing this:

  • If you’re only going to the store once every two weeks, then in a given year, you’ll go 26 times, instead of 52 or more. That is A LOT of time and gas saved, not to mention the temptation of buying extra food every time you’re at the store.
  • The other real advantage is that you eliminate that dreaded “It’s 7 p.m. and what are we going to eat for dinner?” question. You, or whoever lives with you, can see your menu plan on the refrigerator, and you will always know what’s for dinner.

Extra tips:

  • If you shop “in season,” your grocery bill will be lower. Buying a cucumber in the middle of January might seem appealing, but chances are it’s from thousands of miles away and picked well before it was ripe. For that reason, it will generally cost more. The opposite will be true in the summer.
  • I do miss my fruits in winter, but I’m so glad that Florida oranges come into season right around the holidays. This is when I stock up on them. If you wash their skins when you get home and put them in the coolest part of the refrigerator, they’ll keep fresh for up to three weeks. The same goes for other citrus fruits. I’m glad because I crave grapefruits in the winter.
  • Make sure you check your pantry and/or freezer as you make your list. It’s quite mind-boggling when you buy a box of lasagna noodles, and you had one sitting in the back of the pantry, especially if it wasn’t on sale.
  • This step takes me about 30 minutes to complete.
I have my menu plan for the next two weeks, my grocery list in the background and even a recipe book for meal ideas.

I have my menu plan for the next two weeks, my grocery list in the background and even a recipe book for meal ideas.

Step Four: Quickly Match Up Coupons; Get Your Cash Ready

Since you’re quite familiar with the grocery list and your meal plan for the next two weeks, you’ll be able to quickly scan through for coupons relevant to the items you’ll be purchasing.

Advantages of doing this:

  • You will save more money, and it will be quick to skim coupons from Sunday’s paper to match.
  • I don’t get the Sunday paper delivered and have to go to the store to get it. Needless to say, I don’t necessarily head out just to get the paper—unless I need something else. Thus, I don’t always have coupons, but I still save a significant amount of money. (My printer is down, so I can’t print coupons, either—but hey, I save on paper, too!)

Extra tips:

  • I try to always pay for my groceries in cash. For a single trip that will tide me over for two weeks, I bring about $200, plus some change in case my human-error ways take over. I know with rising food prices, I still haven’t had to deviate from this figure all that much.
  • I have joined sites like and before to maximize my savings. I just find that so often I don’t want the items that they have coupons for: processed cereals, fattening potato chips, and stale bottled water are among those items frequently promoted. I do like these websites, though. If you’re just starting out, they are a great way to help you learn the ropes and save at the grocery store. I’m still a member of Upromise because the proceeds help with scholarships, and you can load coupons right onto your grocery membership card.
  • One site I have found particularly valuable is You can often find organic and healthful choices at a fraction of the cost of regular grocery stores. One caveat is that because the process is completely electronic, I sometimes end up spending more than I had intended because the prices and deals are so great. Since you don’t see the “cash,” it’s easier to spend. Watch out for that.
  • Having two weeks’ worth of groceries, plus other items you’ve stocked that are on sale, will ensure that you’re prepared for an emergency. I can relax when I hear some sort of storm is coming because I always have milk, cheese, and other staples on hand—even if I can’t get to the store exactly two weeks later. I don’t have to rush and join the mad mobs trying to get food before the storm.
  • This process takes me about ten minutes to complete.
Here's my grocery list.  I've crossed things out, written my tallies, folded it, wrinkled it—it's served me well.

Here's my grocery list. I've crossed things out, written my tallies, folded it, wrinkled it—it's served me well.

This is me happily holding a very long receipt . . . and I saved almost $74 on this trip, with no coupon clipping. I had only used a few coupons issued by the store.

This is me happily holding a very long receipt . . . and I saved almost $74 on this trip, with no coupon clipping. I had only used a few coupons issued by the store.

Step Five: Bring Your List, a Pen, Coupons, and CASH With You

At the store, start backward and go against the normal traffic flow.

Stick to your list. Mark it off as you go. Tally up how much everything costs, rounding up to the nearest dollar to account for tax. This process goes pretty quickly.

At the register, hand over your cash and coupons and watch the savings add up.

Advantages of doing this:

  • Stores are designed to entice you with goodies as you flow with the traffic. If you go backward, you’ll be less tempted to buy foods not on your list.
  • When you pay in cash, you’re not very likely to go over the amount you have on hand. Plus, you don’t have to worry about debit card receipts.
  • It’s also psychological: when you see yourself spending your hard-earned cash, you’re less willing to just let go of it. If you’re paying with a credit or debit card, it’s more abstract, and you’ll often spend more since you’re not as worried about an exact spending limit.

Extra tips:

  • Grocery store items typically go through a 12-week cycle. They’re on sale for a given week or two, and then about 11 to 12 weeks later, they’ll be on sale again. Not every grocery store follows this plan exactly. It’s a good idea to get a feel for when items go on sale so that you get them when you don’t need them and they are on sale. By doing this, you won’t have to run out and buy an item at full retail price, robbing you of your precious cash, and you will maximize your savings.
  • This process takes me about 1–1.5 hours to complete.
  • Total time from start to finish: two hours and 45 minutes. That may sound like a lot, but imagine if you spent an hour at the store every Saturday without a list, pouring over prices, and wondering what you’ll need for dinner. You’ll invariably make extra trips during the week, adding precious time there. You might spend extra money, because you’ll likely be coming from work hungry and tired.

This process really has helped me to stick to a budget and eat great food at the same time. I also never have to worry if I’ll have enough food if I ever get snowed in, and I always know what to cook when I get home. I hope what I’ve shared helps you, as well.

That grocery list saved me a lot of money.  I also have already saved nearly $300 in one year.  I buy a combination of regular and organic food to make lots of meals from scratch.

That grocery list saved me a lot of money. I also have already saved nearly $300 in one year. I buy a combination of regular and organic food to make lots of meals from scratch.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Cynthia Calhoun


Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on August 08, 2012:

iefox5 - I used to do that! With this method, I do A LOT LESS of that. Though, nobody's perfect. ;) Thanks for stopping by!

nifwlseirff - I love the digital idea!! I've been meaning to computerize everything and I should - I live on my computer, hehe. Thanks so much for coming by; great to see you.

chef-de-jour - I'm a chaotic individual and it helps me a lot of hunker down and focus on getting organized so that my grocery bill doesn't skyrocket. It's a fun challenge, though. Thanks so much for coming by! Cheers!

Andrew Spacey from Sheffield, UK on August 08, 2012:

As one of the most chaotic individuals ever born I really do appreciate this hub - a lesson in organised food shopping. Great job. Now all we need is a hub that explains how to be organised! Not as straightforward I think.

This is excellent information for those who need to cut costs yet not sacrifice quality. Votes!

Kymberly Fergusson from Germany on August 08, 2012:

Having a set budget that you have to stick to, planning meals/snacks and shopping only to a list is the best way to keep the grocery bill low! I should start advance planning - currently I plan one week of meals, two would let me take advantage of sales. I love my digital lists -- saves paper, and synchs with my partner's app - which means we don't double up if shopping separately.

iefox5 on August 07, 2012:

I always buy some food and never eat them. It is time for me to change the bad habit.

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on April 26, 2012:

Shesabutterfly - aw, thanks! For me, nothing beats a yummy home cooked meal - the taste is unparalleled. Congratulations on your engagement! That's so exciting. :) Yes, cook that yummy food...processed food is icky for you. (HUGS)

Cholee Clay from Wisconsin on April 25, 2012:

Awesome hub cc! I love the money saving tips, and will definitely be putting some of these tips into practice. I'm really working on providing great home cooked meals as my fiance and I will be getting married in September and I prefer being able to cook rather than eating processed or fast food.

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on March 23, 2012:

Marina - I have that rule, too. If I go to the store hungry and unprepared, I can forget about my budget. I admit, I do let that happen from time to time and I'm always sad about it. Hehe. But then, I just get right back on the budget wagon and try, try again. :) Thanks for stopping by. (HUGS)

Marina from San Francisco, CA on March 23, 2012:

These are really awesome suggestions! Thanks for putting it together. One rule I've imposed on myself is to NEVER go to the grocery store hungry as my eyes and stomach will go rampant.

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on March 12, 2012:

Millionaire Tips - Thanks for stopping by! I love doing groceries this way. It helps me save for other things like vacations, stuff for the house, etc. Once you make a few menus, save them and you'll be able to reuse your favorite meals. :) HUGS!

Shasta Matova from USA on March 12, 2012:

These are all fantastic ideas. Voted way up! I used to shop every other week, but somehow I changed to a weekly cycle. I'm going to switch back now. Thanks for the reminder. I hadn't thought about going against the flow. I'll have to try it and see how that works. And I've been meaning to plan out an official menu. Definitely have to do that as well.

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on March 06, 2012:

Oooh, cardelean - saving those menus is a great idea. Hehe - I've just been recycling mine! I started this a few years ago when I would only get paid once per month from the school district. I really had to make sure I could stretch it out. Doing this menu stuff really allowed me to do that, for sure. :)

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on March 06, 2012:

Doc Sonic - I'm so glad you found this helpful. Yes, coupons definitely help, and it's true that they often are for processed foods, but the coupons the store prints out at the end of a purchase often have exactly those things that you already buy on them. That's where I get a lot of my coupons.

cardelean from Michigan on March 06, 2012:

Have you been spying on me? :) I think that I do almost everyone one of the things that you mentioned. I started this past school year making a menu for two weeks at a time and then following it with grocery shopping and it works great. I too sometimes slip and then regret it later.

The other thing that I do is save my menus so that I can refer back to them at a later time which saves time as well. Excellent tips, thanks for the guide!

Glen Nunes from Cape Cod, Massachusetts on March 05, 2012:

A very helpful guide. The two-week idea had never occurred to me, but it's a great one! Like you, I often feel like the coupons that are available are for items I don't want. And yet, I know many people save a lot of money this way, so I guess I need to learn more about it. Voted up.

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on March 05, 2012:

alocsin - great to see you! Get on that email list. Even if you never clip coupons, you'll still get "insider" information. :)

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on March 05, 2012:

theclevercat - *some would say* I am not perfect and *some would say* sometimes I d.o slip up and don't make a two-week list. But I always kick myself: once I don't do it, I always spend more money and end up at the store a bunch of times. My kitties will not allow me to feed them just dry food. lol. Thanks for stopping by. Hehe.

Aurelio Locsin from Orange County, CA on March 05, 2012:

Great ideas and it never occurred to me that my local grocery might have an email list. Voting this Up and Useful.

Rachel Vega from Massachusetts on March 05, 2012:

Excellent! I totally do that with my cash, although lately I have been slipping up. And I "go to the store" far more often than I should. I'm definitely going to try the two week thing. Got my up vote and useful!

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on March 05, 2012:

alissa - I've been around those boys that eat everything in sight. I play a "mean" trick on them: when the food's gone, I won't go to the store right of way. Hehe. They don't like that so much, so I'll tell them to pace themselves. Eh, I couldn't tell you if it works, but it's fun "teasing" them a bit. Thanks for stopping by.

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on March 05, 2012:

randomcreative - thank you so much for stopping by. I hope you find these helpful. :) Great to see you!

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on March 05, 2012:

natahsalh - this is how I'm able to do it. If I had to make big lists and menus like this more frequently, it would be hopeless for me. :D

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on March 05, 2012:

teaches12345 - thank you so much for stopping by - I value your comments. I have learned time and again that if I don't make a grocery list, I'll buy everything that "sounds good" and not only does it cost more, but it's not as healthy as when I make a list. Thanks for stopping by. :)

Alissa Roberts from Normandy, TN on March 04, 2012:

A fantastic guide for saving money! I wish I could only go shopping every two weeks. Unfortunately, my boys keep eating everything in sight as soon as I bring it home so it seems I must keep going every week. Love your organization and great tips - voted up, useful, and awesome!

Rose Clearfield from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on March 04, 2012:

What a comprehensive article! Thanks for all of the great tips.

Natasha from Hawaii on March 04, 2012:

It's not an every day event, but it does happen and it's awesome.

Dianna Mendez on March 04, 2012:

Great advice and such money saving ideas. I find that making a list is most important othewise I tend to buy on impulse and it ends up costing money. Looking up coupons online is also cuts down on expense. I agree that as you switch to a healther eating lifestyle it does cut down on your grocery bill.

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on March 04, 2012:

Wow, Natashalh - I didn't know such a thing as TRIPLE coupons existed! Go Harris Teeter! Yes, do stock up, especially on peanut butter. Wherever peanuts are grown in this country didn't do well in 2011, and until we get more, the price of PB will be higher than usual. Thanks for coming by! :)

Natasha from Hawaii on March 04, 2012:

I don't know how many places do it, but Harris Teeters around here sometimes do TRIPLE coupons. It's the best! I try not to buy things I don't need just because they're on sale, but a time like that is great for stocking up on non-perishables I know I will need (like canned goods and peanut butter). Voted useful and up!

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on March 04, 2012:

K9 - you always leave such heartwarming comments - I soo appreciate your kind words and wonderful insights. Hehe, I often "go against the flow" - but I've got strong arm muscles to prove it! :) Thank you so much for stopping by - I appreciate you!!!