Grocery Budgeting, 101: The Basics

In another life, I was a teacher of fresh, eager college students. For most of my very short teaching career, I had the immense pleasure of teaching a group of fiercely-talented burgeoning designers — the kind of kids you really didn’t have to teach at all. They were competitive and eager, which made it easy to come into class the first day and tell them that if they did enough to get by in my class, they’d make a C. That B’s and A’s were hard work, and I wasn’t giving them away (insert my scariest mean face, pretty much the opposite of this one in the Indy Star where I was caught at DigIN with food falling out of my open mouth).

This is how I approach the subject of grocery budgeting, too. There are levels of how much work you can do — and the fantastic thing about living in our plush western world is that you can choose how much you want to do. This goes for me, too — and on any given month, I make anywhere from an A+ to a resounding, thud-like F! when it comes to staying within our food budget.

So, today: the bare minimum. Do these things alone, and you’ll be facing solidly in a direction of staying within your real-food budget.

  1. PLAN YOUR MENU, weekly
    This can look anyway you want it. You can buy online forms and apps to help do this — but I just keep a notebook with my weekly menu scribbled down. I literally have notebooks going all the way back to 2003 — it’s like my own form of a journal (I’m counting on sensory memories filling my mind with nostalgia when I’m 85 years old, in some nursing home, asking Tim to read me our weekly menu from March of 2008). Menus help for a couple of reasons:

    • You know exactly what to shop for, and can (hopefully) get most of your shopping done in one trip. We tend to spend less money, the less we go to the store (unless we over-buy, which is a topic we’ll cover later).
    • You can plan meals that use similar ingredients, all in one week. If you have a 4-pound roast, you can have roast beef one night, and pick up the crusty loaf of bread & horseradish to make open-faced roast beef sandwiches the next night.
    • MY FAVORITE PART: ever have a night when you have no idea what to make for dinner? When you plan your meals, and keep those notes, you always have a resource for recipes you forgot you love. It never fails — when I get menu-writer’s block, I flip open an old notebook to the same month in another year, and I spot a meal that I haven’t made in ages. Inspiration is always at your fingertips.
  2. USE CASH when shopping
    This one was really hard for me to get used to — only because I’d forget to stop at the bank at the beginning of the month, or forget to grab my weekly cash before heading out to the store. But it works beautifully once you get into the habit.
    I take out our entire month’s worth of grocery money at the beginning of the month, and then divide it into the number of weeks in that month. There is a different mental connection that happens when you see money leaving your hands, rather than just scanning a card. You are also aware at all times of where you are — either ahead or behind — in your monthly goals.
    {Reader raises virtual hand} But what about that month when you see salmon on sale and want to buy up $50 worth? Doesn’t that take a chunk of my “weekly” budget?
    Good question — and we’ll cover that in another post (that’s B-level, people).
  3. MAKE A MENTAL (or literal) LIST of items that you’d like to prioritize in expense/quality
    It can be different for all of us. My priority 9 years ago, when I started all of this, was to buy organic food for my new baby. Some people might want to focus on buying organic for the dirty dozen, and others might want to spend extra to buy only local, sustainably-raised animal products — it’ll be different for each of us. If you’re sharing the burden of food finances with a spouse, partner, parent, or roommate, it’s best to be on the same page about these things (not always easy!).

These might be old-school suggestions for everyone — if so, we’ll be stepping it up a notch in the next post. Meanwhile, are you already utilizing these practices? If so, have you found they work, or have they not made the difference you expected? All opinions are welcome, and will in no way be reflected in your final grade.


10 thoughts on “Grocery Budgeting, 101: The Basics

  1. I always do great until the last week of the month, and then it seems like we always run out of milk or ate all the leftovers 2 nights ago.

    I had to buy milk today, above my budget, and almost bought something to make for dinner too, since the pickings are slim, when I realized I had everything to make jambalaya. Phew.

    Except I still need dinner for tomorrow… 🙂

    1. Katie, I’m the exact same. Last week, I’m grumpy (b/c of limited budget) and scraping together the most bizarre meals. And then the day after payday I blow cash on a “nice” (i.e., $8-10) bottle of wine to balance out the week ; )

  2. I’d have to carry a calculator with me at the store. (Or else leave my husband at home; he loves to grocery shop, always finds “deals” and has tons of suggestion–they just don’t jibe with mine.) I’ll try cash.

    1. Actually, a calculator at the store isn’t a bad idea ; ) I’ve been known to pull out the calc on my smartphone!

  3. We meal plan and pay cash. I feel like getting a tattoo on my forehead for the SuperTarget checkout: “No, I don’t want your 5% back credit card. Ever.”

    The prioritizing changes, though, with our budget. If I have the opportunity to buy organic or local at a decent deal, I will stock up. We usually have enough cushion built into our budget that I can do that. The hard part, which you alluded to, is when you and the other members of your family aren’t on the same page about what’s a priority. Mike couldn’t give a hoot about local meat or organic produce, so he would view me making these items a priority, no matter what the price, in our grocery budget as irresponsible. So I compromise, trying to buy as much fresh food as possible, which is kind of the middle ground between buying local and organic versus just sticking to processed stuff.

    Have you ever checked out the “Dinner: a Love Story” blog or cookbook? Jenny from DALS has kept a similar dinner notebook for years and years.

    1. Totally agree re: Target sales pitch. Good grief.

      I have read that blog — I think originally per your suggestion. It’s fantastic!

  4. This post hits on my biggest helper for sticking to the budget: menu-planning. I use Cozi (a free online app that syncs to our phones and that we can access from work computers). I plan the meals there and make a grocery list – then my husband executes it. If I forget to put something on the list, I can add it from anywhere – even if he’s out shopping – because it pushes to his phone.

    This works perfectly for us b/c I am the one who cares about food – I will totally stray from the list. But he sticks to it exactly and usually stays within our budget. In fact, he gets crabby when I go with him because we always spend so much more. =) It also helps keep us from eating out as much. If I have something planned, I’m not stuck for a dinner idea. Plus I can’t stand to let the food we’ve already bought go to waste.

    1. Ok, that’s so good to know — I’ve not heard of this app, and Tim is always complaining that he can’t put his entries into the perpetual grocery from his phone. I’m downloading Cozi tonight!

  5. I have just recently started menu planning by the month instead of the week. 6 meals * 4 weeks. Felt overwhelming at first but really that’s a list of 4 chicken, 4 beef/lamb, 4 soups, 4 fish, and 8 meatless, and that’s my month. I’m finding it to be more flexible for things like stock up deals. If I find great ingredients on sale for something in the 3rd week, I just switch that recipe out with something in the first and I don’t miss out on the good deal.

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