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How to Budget for Groceries in YNAB

How to organize your categories to save more money on food!

Our refrigerator died yesterday. Slowly. While we were away all day. We didn’t realize it until this morning.

So I’ve been thinking about saving money on groceries while I bag and discard a lot of spoiled food. Goodbye pork tenderloin and frozen bananas, farewell ice cream and yogurt—it was fun while it lasted!

One thing that makes this easier (besides the Appliance Replacement category in our budget, which completely saved our bacon, if you’ll excuse the pun) is the Groceries category group I’ve been using for a couple of years.

Mine looks like this:

Most of the food I had to throw out was supposed to feed us through the 7th. I still had $20 left in that week’s budget, which went towards buying ice – because these are our refrigerators for the next 7 days, until the new refrigerator arrives.

My temporary refrigerators

Food and ice for the next 3 days is coming out of our Emergency Fund category. Then we’re back on the regular budget for the 8th through the 15th. We’ll be shopping daily, since coolers can only handle so much, but the time-related categories will keep us on track.

Why do I have a Groceries category group? I don’t know about your brain, but my brain is really bad at tracking a large sum of money that I can spend at any time, in any amount, over an entire month.We were always running out of grocery money before the month ran out. Which starts to impact the rest of your budget, because you have to move money out of other categories to keep everyone fed.

Hence, the Groceries category group.

You want your budget to be as simple as possible, but some categories can benefit from a bit more detail—groceries is one of them. Now each time one of us shops for groceries, we look at the category balance for the current time period. That’s the amount of money that has to feed us for a much shorter time period. That’s a reality I can understand. As we say at YNAB, “Scarcity equals Clarity”.

Once I created the Groceries category group, the big question was: “How do I organize this?” Your budget should reflect the reality of your life—so organize it based on your planning and/or shopping routine. The real one. Not the one you pretend you do when other people ask.

Here are ways that other people have organized their Groceries category groups—but don’t be afraid to come up with an idea that’s all your own!

  • Weekly: Groceries Week 1, Groceries Week 2, etc…. Hint: pad Week 4 with some extra money because it has to cover the 28th through the 31st. Or, create a separate category for Week 5. This weekly set-up works well if you shop for groceries on the same day every week.
  • By Shopping Pattern: Do you do a single major shopping trip to a big box store each month, then pick up smaller, perishable items several times at a grocery store, maybe once a week?  Create one category for “Big Box Shop”, then categories for “Grocery Store Shop Weeks 1 & 2”, “Grocery Store Shop Weeks 3 & 4”.

And then you have to fund those categories. Which brings up the age-old question that so many of us have hurled at the Universe:  “How much should I budget for groceries?”

Start with what you’re spending right now. Select your Groceries category and look over at the Auto-Assign section on the right. What’s the amount in  “Average Spent”?

Find the average spent on your groceries category,

If you don’t like the number you see, take off 5% and use that as your new number. With groceries, you want to set yourself up for success. First achieve this small reduction, then you can try for more. Baby steps here, people.

Take your Groceries number and divide it up among your new Groceries categories. Just don’t forget to check those category balances every time you buy food!

For more details and some time to ask questions, you might want to check out our Q&A session about Saving Money On Groceries. It’s one of my favorite classes to teach.

This is all about food and money, so we could keep going with this for much longer—what about things that aren’t groceries, but you buy them at the grocery store? How do we avoid impulse buying? What if we hate to plan our meals? Let’s talk more about that soon….but right now, we can start with what our budget can do for us and then move forward.

Want to love the way you spend money on groceries (and everything else!)? Try YNAB for free for 34 days—no commitment or credit card required.

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How to Budget for Groceries in YNAB