Grocery shopping on a budget is one of budgeting’s greatest challenges—especially as prices continue to rise. Get organized and cut costs with our free price tracker and grocery planner templates.
Groceries have been a sore spot in my budget for years, and as the deadline approaches for meeting one of my personal financial goals, I decided to really focus on this frequently fluctuating expense so that I could funnel my savings towards something that matters more to me right now.
It’s taken a lot of trial and error, but over the last year and a half, I feel like I have finally dialed it in. I’m going to share some numbers and strategies, but please keep in mind: Grocery prices vary wildly across the United States and beyond. What I share here is what works for me in Maine. If I lived in NYC or Seattle or basically anywhere else, prices would most definitely be different. My grocery bill would be higher in some places and lower in others.
That’s why I don’t spend a lot of time comparing my grocery budget to others. I focus on my average since that’s a real number that I can control. But with that being said, implementing a few of these strategies and putting our free price tracker, kitchen inventory, and meal planning printables (see below!) to use can help reduce your food budget, too.
Also, for clarity’s sake, grocery spending for me includes everything I buy at the grocery store with the exception of pet food, which I track separately. (I have three cats and a dog, so I really need to know what they cost me so I can prepare appropriately.) Some people choose to list their household goods like cleaning supplies or paper towels into a separate budget category. Do whatever works for you!
Grocery Spending History (it’s a lot of money)
Alrighty then, with that out of the way, let’s look at some of my grocery spending history. Being the budget nerd that I am, I have data going back to December of 2016. (To be fair, YNAB, my budgeting app, tracks this for me—managing this information on my own for this long would put me in a whole different category of budgeting glory.)
Can we just stop for a second and look at that total? I mean—wow. Over the past 6+ years I’ve spent over $17,000 on groceries. As one person. That just blows my mind. Oh, and that big spike in the middle? That was my “Oh my gosh there’s a pandemic I need to go buy all the things!!!” shopping month. The spike a few months later? I was sick that month and really needed a good popsicle supply. Just sayin’. Our budget tells the story of our lives.
My monthly average over that time was $261.38. I am shopping just for me, and like I said it includes non-food items like shampoo, paper towels, cleaning supplies—you get the idea. So really, that’s not too bad.
But over the past few years, I started to really feel that I could do better and free up more money. So I decided to aim for spending $200 a month on grocery items. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t sure I could do it. But setting my goal uncomfortably low forced me to pay attention to my grocery spending in a way I hadn’t for a while.
Turns out I geek out on this stuff, so I made significant progress.
Here’s my grocery spending for 2021:
I was pretty dang close to $200! I was really pleased with this.
Then 2022 hit and food prices have been on the rise. Honestly, it didn’t affect me at first (more on that in a bit), but I’m feeling it now. But it’s making me shake my fist at the sky and say, “I will not be deterred! I will stay at $200 a month for 2022! I can do this!”
(Sometimes having a stubborn competitive streak is an asset!)
How to Reduce Your Grocery Budget
When it comes to grocery shopping on a budget, you have to decide which lever is more important to you: time or money.
Here’s what I mean by that: Right now, I am willing to spend more time (price shopping, cooking, etc) in order to lower my costs. Time is something I have and I enjoy working on this. However, my friend and colleague Ernie has three teenage boys. Time is precious to him. So he is willing to spend more money on groceries if it frees up time in his life.
Where I’m willing to drive to a few different stores to get the best prices, Ernie’s philosophy is “I’m going to place the order online and just do curbside pick up and boom—I’ve got my Saturday back.” (Sidenote: Online ordering is also a great way to curb impulse buying.)
I respect that. I’d probably feel the same way if I had three teenagers.
So I fully expect some people reading this will be in Ernie’s camp and that is A-OK. But if you’re willing to put some time in, I’m your girl—and there’s a lot you can do to lower your grocery spending.
Strategies to Save Money
If you’re willing to spend a little time to save money, try incorporating the following tips, tricks, and suggestions into your shopping, planning, and dining routines:
Download Our Grocery Planner Templates
There are so many tools available to help organize shopping and meal times that it’s almost overwhelming, which is why we tried to consolidate everything you need into one handy PDF resource that is both editable and printable.
Our free Grocery Planner templates include a pantry inventory with spaces for a restocking list, meal ideas, and an avocado ripeness tracker (because not ripe, not ripe, not ripe, rotten seem to be the stages of avocado existence), a fridge and freezer inventory, and a weekly meal planning template. Hit the button below and download it to get started.
Know Your Prices
I have three grocery stores I go to regularly that are close to me. I thought I knew the prices, but I wanted to be sure. I’ve longed for an app that would track prices across the stores the way I want it to, but I haven’t had much luck finding one. So I built a price tracker in Google Sheets. It was eye opening to say the least!
Grab yourself a copy of my price tracker here if you’re interested. (Best used by spreadsheet nerds).
To make a copy, go to “File” and “Make a copy.” Basically, each row is an item, and when you enter the prices for that row/item, the cell with the lowest price turns green.
The price differences between my stores were shocking to me—I can’t stress that enough. Yes, it was work to build it out, but now keeping it updated takes a few minutes here and there when I sit down to build a shopping list. Prices for most stores are available online, which makes it a bit easier, so compare between Walmart, Aldi, Amazon, and your local grocery stores. And you don’t have to do it all in one sitting. First, build your grocery list of items you regularly buy. Then grab the prices for one store, then the next store another time.
The other thing about paying attention to prices in this way is I know a good deal when I see one.
Keep a Well-Stocked Pantry
I got better at this during the pandemic and now I am a pro. I could easily go two weeks without shopping without blinking an eye. Aside from that advantage, I can also whip up any number of meals that I know I’ll enjoy very quickly.
Our Grocery Planner templates include an inventory list for your pantry, fridge, and freezer, and a meal planning template, so be sure to download that and you’ll always know what to stock up on.
This also helps limit trips to the grocery store—the more trips I make, the more I tend to spend. Check out this blog post about how to go grocery shopping once a month.
Focus on Your Average
As I mentioned above, I keep an eye on my average. I’m not worried about spending the exact same amount every month. Some months I run above $200 if I come across some great deals and want to stock up. When that happens a few months in a row, I know there’s food available, so I cook from the pantry and freezer to bring down the average.
Fresh produce is important to me, so in months where I’m trying to spend less, that’s where I continue to splurge. Having fresh fruits and vegetables on hand makes it easier for me to make healthy meals.
Buy Generics (Store Brands)
Mindy over at See Mindy Mom did a fascinating analysis of brands versus generics. I mostly buy store brands, with a few exceptions, so I was already doing this, but I had no idea how much money it saved. If you aren’t doing this, it’s worth trying. And if you find a store brand of something you hate, well at least now you know and you can go back to the name-brand stuff guilt-free.
(Mindy is a great resource for budget family meals. 10 out of 10 would recommend her channel.)
This is worth your time and it doesn’t need to be super fancy. You don’t need to figure out every snack for every day. You just need a framework.
I do this on the weekend and cook a few bigger things that I can reheat over the course of the week. Here’s a typical weekly menu for me.
- Overnight Oats with Strawberries and Blueberries
- Scrambled Eggs with Oven Baked Home Fries
- Egg Salad Sandwiches (sometimes with homemade bread)
- Tossed Salads. I make up about a half dozen of these and store them in individual glass containers. I just pull one out each day—boom—done.
- Taco Soup
- Green Chili Chicken Enchiladas
- Tortilla Chips with homemade salsa
That’s just one week, but it’s enough to keep me happy and help me avoid take out. Use the meal planning template in our free printable to come up with an easy meal plan of your own. And check out this blog post on meal planning myths—it doesn’t have to be difficult or time consuming!
One way to keep meal planning manageable is to figure out what your top ten meals are; choose things that are easy to make and budget-friendly. Here’s my list:
- Homemade Pizza. I make this in a cast iron skillet. I make excellent homemade pizza. It is my superpower.
- Taco Soup (as mentioned above)
- Burrito Bowls
- Homemade Chicken/Turkey Pot Pie
- Roasted Veggies with Grilled Chicken Breasts
- English Muffin Pizzas—a bit of an emergency meal for me. (Thanks Dad!)
- Baked Beans and Potato Salad
- Corn Chowder
- Homemade Focaccia with Roasted Veggies
- Sweet Chili Chicken Bowls
Need some cheap and easy meal ideas? We’ve got you covered.
Eat What You Buy
I’m convinced we all throw away too much food, myself included. (How many times have those fresh vegetables turned into a mushy mess?) So my latest goal has been to finish what’s in the fridge before making something else. Sometimes that means getting a little creative, like turning that formerly fresh produce into a smoothie.
I also make an effort not to make too much of any one meal, and if I do make a big batch of something, I’ll throw half in the freezer right away.
Buy Ingredients, Not Processed Food
You won’t see a lot of processed stuff in my cupboards. For the most part, I buy ingredients and use what I buy across multiple recipes. There’s often a mindset that if you’re spending too little on food, you can’t be eating healthy foods. I have not found that to be true. If I bought all organic from the local farmer’s market, yeah that would cost more. (And if that’s important to you—go for it!)
But there’s just no question that cooking from scratch saves money. And the mental overhead of preparing a meal lessens as your skills and habits get better.
If you want help learning to cook there are lots of channels on YouTube that can help you. Just search around. I mentioned See Mindy Mom; I also like Meals with Maria and Frugal Fit Mom. All three are great if you just want to binge watch to get ideas.
How I Fight Leftover Fatigue
When it comes to leftovers, the struggle is real. I mean I loooove taco soup, but I don’t want to eat it every day for a week. That just doesn’t work for me. The long standing suggestion is to freeze half for later, and that works for some things, but not so much for others.
I also like to cook more often, so lately I’ve also been doing the opposite: I cook a half batch instead of a full batch. This gives me less to eat through, saves freezer space, and I get to try more things.
If you have a big family, this may not work as well for you so get in the habit of dividing big batches into smaller portions and perfecting your freezing routine.
Get Started with Grocery Shopping on a Budget
All of this might seem like a lot of work, but you build habits as you go. Make it more manageable by choosing one area to improve on first—start comparing prices, take inventory of what you have, create a list of your 10 Go-To Meals, or work on a meal plan.
Just like you can choose which savings lever to pull (time or money), you can also choose your own pace for revamping your grocery spending. Maybe you’re ready for a 100-yard dash to the finish line of frugality with a complete overhaul of your meal planning and shopping. Perhaps you’re a long distance marathon runner who needs to meander through Whole Foods a few more times. Any improvement is an improvement and saving on your grocery budget can help you work towards achieving financial goals that matter more to you.
So you’ve downloaded our free Grocery Planner templates but have you started a budget? Try YNAB for free for 34 days and enjoy less money stress with a financial planning tool that puts your money to work for you.