Don’t want to read 10,000 words of epic brilliance? Watch the video for a summary!
Side note: 90% of the work is done once
10% of the work is simply staying the course with your big ole wallet
This will be life changing even for those who think “but I didn’t make enough money to save”. Just relax your closer to your dream life than you think.
Want printable worksheets to take the guess work out and to keep you on track?
- Check out my Etsy Shop iPlaniCan for The Ultimate Grocery Budget Printables
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My Cheap Recipes
(just to name a few)
9 simple pasta recipes
11 ways to flavor rice
5 breakfasts under 50 cents
3 meals under 50 cents (lunch/dinner)
5 full days meal prep – $9 total
5 full days meal prep – $18 total
low calorie meal prep – $1.50 per day
3 $1 meal recipes
5 ways to eat beans
10 cheap travel food hacks
$1 meal ideas
6 soup recipes
Change or cry…
The last few days of 2017 my usual power through attitude went out the window. I pretty much run off of sunshine and sarcasm but right as the new year came on the horizon my internal cheerleader disappeared and my outlook got dark pretty quick.
In general I’m a very future focused, goal driven and plan oriented kind of person.
You know that saying “you’re either growing or you’re dying”? Well I live a ” you’re either you’re moving or you’re dying” kind of life.
Some days that desire to move is motivated by inspiration while other days it’s more of a very desperate energy. Either way the world of self employment has created this drive in me to not sit still & just keep going.
So at the end of 2017 when the internal voice that says “keep pushing through” disappeared I was left with a real moment of reflection. I started 2017 with the attitude that this year was going to be different. We were going to work hard, create a real household income and not be stuck in our current situation until we die.
A quick recap of that current situation: obsess about work 24/7, not dare think of moving or changing our lifestyle because we’re living at the lowest rung of life with our cheap apartment/no frills living.
But our 2017 income wasn’t better off. It was a lot of work with more perceived reward than actual reward. So at the end of the year I was taking inventory for the first time and the lack of progress felt like a huge blow. The reality check of a year “wasted” hit me hard (that’s pity language, it really wasn’t a wasted year).
After a 7 days of pity my internal cheerleader still hadn’t come back to break the pity party up. I knew from the past that my well of darkness can run pretty deep so I monitor conscious negativity on a daily bases. If I see a spark of negativity it’s my job to not let it turn into a flame. I take my mood very seriously. If I dip my toe in the pool it’s not long before I think I’m drowning. Yes I am an emotional baby if I take my hands off the wheel.
In an effort to turn this frown upside down I pretty much went back to the basics.
I calmed the hell down and stopped reviewing the parts that were my failures and mistakes. Reviewing the failures was seriously the entirety of my pity party. I figured I could get more insight out of the mistakes if I cheered the hell up.
Instead of looking to the past I looked ahead. My brain asked me “What is a life that’s other than mine that that actually inspires me?” (Yes there’s a motivational speaker in my head 99% of the time)
I imagined living in a beautiful home. I didn’t picture a generic house. I specifically pictured a home. Something that was warm and inviting that felt lived in and loved. Part of the package for this fantasy home is that it’s in walking distance to an Aldi and a well funded library. <– this is seriously part of disarming the negativity in my head. If I can see myself walking from my front door out to basic adventures I will feel like there’s a glimmer of hope left in the world.
And I imaged all of the ways a home would support Mark my husband. The man needs a garage. He hasn’t built an instrument since we lived in the tiny house in the woods (5+ years ago).
With my emotions shifted my head was clear to now look at the past with more analysis (not emotion).
Looking Over Our Expenses…
As much as I knew what all of our expenses were I had overlooked the value in taking a refresher. Part of the reason why I over looked reviewing our expenses was because our life is soooo minimal (relative term). Like, what’s there to even review?!
We don’t have kids or pets. We’ve had the same apartment for the like 5 years which is priced 30% below market value. (There are new owners so this will be changing). We have 1 used car. Blah blah blah. What all of this means is that it really didn’t seem like there was much to review.
Ohhhhhhh, there it is….
But upon further inspection I saw that our grocery bill was consistently really high. I do have this food blog so that does account for some of the additional spending.
The amount of times in 2017 that I thought to myself “I should just get some minimum wage job to supplement my income” was more than I could count but decided to just press on.
So when I WROTE out every expense we had. and saw how much we spend on groceries it occurred to me that I could likely skim $300 a month away from groceries and funnel it into our dreams & goals.
*Side note: did you know that in 2012 Mark and I saved $24,000 in 18 months while I was waiting tables and he was making $10/hour at a grocery store? (and we were eating 100% organic in those day too. I no longer prioritize organic.)
If you can do more with less then the excess will make you rich
(I drop the mic, no one is impressed)
It’s said that the three biggest costs in our life are housing, food & transportation. If you’re driving an expensive car, living in a nice place or indulging in prepared foods & drinks then you’re leaving money on the table. If you can get any of those costs down then it could change your life.
Our grocery bill was the only realistic area in our life where money could be skimmed from.
*Important Mathematical Digression: Let’s say your three main areas could all come down just a notch. If you spent $25 less on food a week, drove a vehicle that was $100 less a month and found a home or apartment that was $100 less a month. That $300 a month savings could simply be put towards retirement (yawn) and in 10 years it would compound into $50,000. Or $100,000 in 15 years. Or $400,000 in 30 years.
The hidden $400,000 was sitting in my grocery bill. Uhhhh.
My goal in saying this isn’t that everyone should take their life down a notch. Actually I want to take my life up several notches but I want it to be a win-win for my future and present self. Ultimately I want a long timeline of winning at life.
If I spend all of my money on food I would want that to be by choice and NOT just something that’s happens because I’m being a dumbass.
Because I have a food blog I figured that one post a week (3-5 recipes in each post) would serve me better than striving for two post a week like I had done all of 2017. But I still needed to get clear on how we could reduce use our food budget thoughtfully.
So everything above was my why.
“Why” being I need a house to call a home and I need to prepare for retirement. I swear I could write a 1980s Micheal Keaton blue collar movie with my big dreams. My old-man-goals are real. I feel them in my bones.
And for years now I keep feeling the pressure to save but truly thought that we just didn’t make enough money in order to save.
What I’m about to explain is different
When it really sank in that I actually could be ready to start saving money now and getting my financial life together I started looking on youtube “how to grocery budget extreme”.
After clicking on a few videos my enthusiasm pretty much went in the trash and I clicked out of youtube. I wanted the ins and outs of a working system. I wanted to understand how to get my act together but instead I was weeding through videos of random people showing what they bought and what was in their freezer. I didn’t need to see what anyone was buying. I’ve got my own food habits and preferences. I didn’t need to see their what. I needed to understand their how which lead me down this rabbit hole. Turns out that in order to master this one area of my life in which I have complete control I needed to look at the 6 areas of grocery shopping instead of just that one which most people focus on in their videos. Plus I need an backup plan in case I get bored and fell off the wagon.
Figuring out my where…
After 3 years of making hippie recipe videos on youtube I’ve gotten a better eye for prices. Essentially grocery shopping is apart of my job and like any skill the more you do it the more refined your ability gets.
Before you go shopping you really need to decide where you’re getting your groceries from.
I’ll leave it up to you to decide how much you need to shop-hop between stores in order to get the prices you want. I personally hate driving to a million places to get one ingredient here and one ingredient there. If I lived in the suburbs I might be more into it but in Dallas the traffic, the huge parking lots and the long grocery store lines kills my inspiration to save a buck. I truly might move to the suburbs in part to manage this desire to go to multiple stores without it being a huge headache.
I was considering making a video showing the cost differences between some basic foods between stores. Like here’s a bowl of pasta and sauce from Aldi for literally 30 cents vs the same bowl of pasta and sauce from Whole Foods.
Things to consider when picking stores to shop at:
- how many stores are you willing to drive to?
- who sells the most affordable staples and affordable produce? Is it the same store?
- do you want a store with lots of options or fewer?
Some of this you’ll know and some you’ll figure out. Things change over time. Prices will change. But if you’re paying attention you’ll be 90% better off than everyone else at buying groceries.
I recommend writing out your staple groceries and spending a couple hours going to 2-5 stores to compare prices. I straight up went to aldi and with my phone took pictures of the price tags for every staple item I’d buy. I put those pictures in a folder on my computer. I think I looked that the pictures a bunch for a week and haven’t needed to look at them again since.
The store comparison should only take an afternoon. Do it once, get it out of the way and consider it a one time investment in getting a rock solid grocery budge pillar in place.
Stores to compare even if you don’t normally shop there (you might be surprised):
- local supermarket (kroger, wegmans, walmart, etc)
- health food store (whole foods, natural grocer, trader joes, etc)
- bulk groceries (costco, sam’s club, etc)
- discount grocery stores (99 cent only store, aldi, etc)
- ethnic grocery stores (Mexican stores, Asian & Indian grocers)
- online options (thrive market, AmazonFresh, etc)
- farmers markets / CSA
The one benefit I personally appreciate from smaller grocery stores (aldi & ethnic grocery stores) as opposed to supermarkets is there are less decisions to make. There’s less shiny objects to capture my heart & mind and pull me away from my grocery list. And there’s way less decision fatigue (more on that below).
Here’s me when I go to my beloved kroger flagship store. I walk down a whole aisle dedicated to the tiny little jar of mustard I want to buy. I don’t see the one I want. I see like 5 ones that I want and 50 other versions in my peripheral that sound even better than the one I had in mind than when I wrote my list.
When I write down plain mustard I’m thinking of a universal condiment. But when I start salivating at the sight of spicy mustard I start picturing specific things I want to eat with it. Dude it’s a trap. Now I want to start buying unplanned stuff to fulfill this imagery in my mind. Oh maybe I should go buy some bread?! There was zero plans to make sandwiches this week but exotic mustard has just inspired my taste buds for gourmet sandwiches or whatever.
The decision overload doesn’t stop there.
Now I’m comparing prices between the fancy mustard to the cheap one I had written on my grocery list. I’m comparing the prices fall all the cheap mustards between like 100 different brands. One bottle is 12 ounces for 99 cents, another bottle is 14 ounces for $1.09….then my head explodes! After my mental faculties are taken out I’m 2,000 times more susceptible to throwing random bags of chips in the chart.
I would go grocery shopping with my sister and shes just stare at me, “That’s not on your list is it?” I’d say “No but…” and she’d reply with, “oh really tell me about it” with this smug little willie wonka look.
- Decision fatigue can cause irrational trade-offs in decision making
- Decision fatigue has been shown to make less favorable decisions
- Decision fatigue can lead people to avoid decisions entirely
- Decision fatigue can influence irrational impulse purchases
- Decision fatigue can impair self-regulation
I go to aldi and there’s like 2 or 3 mustards to choose from and not a whole aisle. Some people would see that as a strength and other would see that as a weakness. But less choices mean stronger decision faculties.
Ultimately my Where is a dynamic answer and changes depending on my needs week to week. There’s usually items I need for the blog that I can’t get at aldi.
Figuring out my who…
Something to consider is that the person who prepares the meals may not be the best person to buy the groceries. While my husband and I both cook I would say I’m more future focused than him. Being at the grocery store can trigger my planning mind to think “Oh, maybe we should get this random item! I could make a few meals out of this”. But if I write out a grocery list I’m like a coach with a winning playbook. As the coach I don’t need to perform the moves I just need a star player to follow through with the plan. The times that I’ve handed the grocery list off to Mark have been an effortless way to staying on track and not overspending. He just buys what’s on the list.
If you have a couple teenagers in your family ask the one with the most obliging personality to go buy groceries and stick to the list.
If you live on your own ask a friend to go shopping with you and trade grocery lists. They’ll pick out only what’s on your list and you’ll do the same for them.
This works best when you have specific brands or package sizes written out so that your buyer is getting the brands and quantities that best fit your budget.
Figuring out my when (mixed with a little how)…
Huge round of applause for me because I finally connected the dots that timing is another variable that can help get you to your grocery budget goal.
- how often do you need to go grocery shopping?
- cycling stores
- cycling favorite foods
- cycling staple foods
- cycling items within a food group
- cycling to delay gratification
- cheap / expensive week cycling
- frozen vs fresh vs dried vs canned
- meal planning
I’ve come to learn that my naturally extreme / black & white robotic thinking isn’t how most people function. Good golly folks there is gray! Instead of my brain staying “nope, you can only shop at aldi so make it work toots” I’ve come to discover this wonderful world of gray. In this world you can create systems (and back up systems) to accommodate real life.
Let’s say I can find everything I need from one store but there’s a few random ingredients I really want that I can only get from an expensive store that bring on decision fatigue. Instead of getting what I need now I’ll choose to wait.
“Waiting” doesn’t have to be vague. Feel free to find a schedule that makes sense. I find the less often I step into a fancy grocery store the more money I keep for myself. I’m not 100% sure why going to a fancy store less saves me money. Is because I’m simply there less which leads to less impulse buys? Is it because I find cheaper alternatives to that rare ingredient and no longer need to go to whole foods? Is it because as time goes on I forgot about the recipe as a whole? Regardless of the reason waiting is always something to consider.
Store Cycling could simply be alternating between your preferred store and a cheap store. Every other week you could go to the cheap store or create a once a month cycle for cheap groceries. It’s totally up to you.
Ingredient Cycling is my loophole to prevent me from overfilling the cart. I’ll see 3 flavors of chips or 3 different piles of fruit and be committed to them all. The amount of times I’ve put multiple of the same thing (I’ll get a huge watermelon, a pineapple and a bag of kiwi) into the cart makes no sense. Dude pick out 1 thing, if it doesn’t last a whole week you’ll survive.
I’ll tell myself “pick one out now then put the other item on the following grocery trip list”. I used to actually take my brain’s requests very seriously. I’d write down “peaches” or “chips” then totally lose interest by the next time we’d go get groceries .
There’s also a side benefit to buying less. If I buy more than enough (cheap) fruit to last a week there’s a good chance it will last a week. If I buy 3-5 days of worth of something and I run out it trains my brain to go look in the freaking pantry. Seriously. The amount of times I’ve completely ignored perfectly good staple foods (think oatmeal with brown sugar and frozen blueberries) it’s ridicules. I own so much invisible food in my pantry that I’m confused why I ever need leave my house in order to eat.
Buy less, use the pantry to fill in the gaps and write down the items you wish to buy now on to future grocery trips.
How often you go grocery shopping is major way stack the deck in your favor. By following a schedule it forces you to make the most of what you have. If you run out of something you’ll develop a keener eye for quantity vs time. Oh this bag of potatoes lasts 2 me weeks. Oh this celery will get eaten in 3 days. When you go to buy something it would be ideal to gave a general idea of how many meals you’ll get out of it.
Let’s say this grocery cycle you bought a bag of rice. If you knew how many meals those would create you could avoid buying unnecessary bread or tortillas that cycle too.
Having a solid timeline attached to a pile of money means it’s 90% predictable how much money you’ll be spending on groceries in a month or even a year. Pick which days are your grocery days and stick to it.
Food group cycling. Instead of getting all the things you like pick a limited number of things per food group. Maybe instead bread, pasta, rice, tortillas, etc you just pick 1 or 2 for this week since they’re pretty much the same food group. On the next grocery trip you’ll pick out 1 or 2 different carbs. Same with produce, same with protein, same with snacks, desserts, junk food and drinks. Over the course of the month you will have a good variety of food but less variety day to day if that makes sense.
Another part of food group cycling is picking one thing from your pantry as the place holder for that week. For example, in the last few months we’ve become loyal la croix sparkling water addicts. By cycling the sparkling water in (every single grocery week) I’ve completely forgot about the hoards of herbal tea in the pantry.
Unannounced to my husband I’m going to lay off the sparkling water and start drink cold brewed herbal tea. The sparkling water will last twice as long since I won’t be drinking it and I’ll be whittling down my ignored tea stash.
If I was rich I would buy a mountains worth of vegetables, one of every kind. But I feel content with sticking to my small staple of vegetables because they’re cheap. Plus I pick veggies that last in 1-2 weeks before going bad. When I’m bored with them I’ll buy different kinds of produce but that produce splurge is expected to not take place more than once a month. I can go several months before getting bored (knock on wood) so I don’t officially schedule the variety but I can anticipate 1-2 veggie splurges every few months.
Schedule your variety using weekly or monthly cycling however it that makes sense to you.
Delaying gratification should be done with care. When finding the line between taking what you want for now and leaving enough for later can be enlightening but also a challenge.
There are some personality types (like my own) who are first to dive into the deep end of deprivation when trying to get my finances in order. While self induced deprivation may not seem like a big deal I think it secretly is. I think being in the head space of deprivation can be toxic even when there’s neuro-chemical rewards such as feeling like to total badass, feeling in control and having some purity complex of doing things “the right way”.
No one can decide what’s deprivation is for someone else. Feel your way through this. Breaking your own rules is a good way to test what’s actually working for you or not.
Remember the goal isn’t to feel frugal or even proud of being frugal. Often that feeling is a distraction. If you saved $2 a day by brewing your own coffee instead of going to starbucks but overlook saving tens of thousands of dollars on house payments because your credit isn’t top notch then you’re living by in a fantasy based on the perceived value of being frugal than actually being frugal.
This podcast blog post “how to spend less and earn more” on the Afford Anything (not everything) blog goes in depth with the pitfall of living in the fantasy of accomplishment while ignore the bigger picture. She gives classic examples such as ordering a cheaper item at a restaurant or getting water instead of soda and why that’s not the best way to run your financial life.
The book I Will Teach You To Be Rich goes above and beyond with explaining how to actually create a healthy financial life. It’s an actionable step by step “6 weeks to success” kind of book. The author Ramit Sethi rails against getting detracted by the perceived wins for being overly frugal. He’s against people cutting out lattes from their life to save a buck. Dude the audio book is hilarious! (PS: that is NOT an affiliate link).
Delayed gratification is great when you know your why. Then trade off is always worth while. Do I want a greasy bag of chips and some extra produce or having my dream home with a secured future…. This one isn’t hard.
Taking a break and delaying the gratification of a great meal can take your flavor inflation down a notch. I’ve heard my father-in-law say many of times that it may not be worth trying the $50 a pound ham or the $300 bottle of whiskey. “What if I find out that I really like it?! It’s not worth it”.
There’s a huge trap that pretty much everyone of us fall into and it’s lifestyle inflation. When we’re youthful living at home or in our first apartment we might be comfortable with the simply of our life. We listen to music, hang out with friends, read books and live on ramen. As we become more valuable in our jobs our paycheck reflects that and lifestyle inflation happens. The fact that many people who earn more than $200,000 a year can live beyond their means should remind everyone else on the totem pole that lifestyle inflation needs a yearly review to keep it in check.
It’s hard to go backwards in life. Adults don’t want to do it. I don’t want to do it. Last year I got hotel inflation. I don’t want to go backward to crappy motels. It happens to all of us.
I talked about this above. There are three main areas of your life where your lifestyle can inflate. Housing, transpiration and food. Delaying gratification in the food department can prevent flavor inflation.
I’ve heard it said that being selective makes the selected more valuable.
If you’re selective with who you’re going to date then the one you end up selecting is by far more valuable. Going out to eat frequently can loses it’s magic but when it’s a rare occasion it feels special. The goal isn’t cold hard restriction as much as it’s about being selective. Making thoughtful decisions and not leaving your life to run on autopilot is what being selective is all about.
Cheap vs expensive cycling can be as simple as just picking one fancy meal a week to make at home. Or even one fancy week a month. Or having one fancy meal everyday along side 2 low budget meals and snacks to compliment it.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever owned a total piece of crap car and in retrospect realized the amount of money you poured into maintaining it could have paid for half of a brand new cheap car. <— this was us 2017. You live, you learn.
The average amount of money we spent last year for groceries in retrospect was crazy. Looking objectively at the numbers we could have been eating high class meals every night if I had done a little planning. But instead I poured too much money into buying a bunch of cheap stuff, into variety for the sake of variety and poured too much into my blog. We could eat better with proper planning or eat the same cheap food but cut the excesses in order to save money. I like doing a hybrid of each.
Fresh vs Frozen vs Canned vs Dried is clearly a personal choice.
Fresh food usually tastes best but that has to be qualified by assuming that you’re actually going to cook it before it goes bad. A good amount of people throw out fresh food because it didn’t get eaten before it went bad which is the same as throwing out money.
Fresh food has a shelf life. If you’re going to the store once every 7 days it would be super helpful to buy a set amount of fresh food (say 3-4 days worth) then have frozen ingredients to supplement the last few days with.
The magic of under buying fresh food is that it’s completely possible that you won’t eat all of it fast enough. So you buy 3 days worth of a few fresh foods then find there’s a some left over buy day 5 you’ll be at an advantage. And the supplemental freezer food create a buffer so you can make it til you’re next grocery trip.
I bought 5 steamer bags of broccoli from aldi (like $1 each). They sat in my freezer as a buffer. If I needed some veggies and I was out fresh produce instead of going to the store early the frozen produce would tie me over. And there was plenty of weeks that my 10lb bag of potatoes or my 2 lb bag of carrots dominated my produce consumption for the week and I didn’t need to touch the broccoli. I think it’s a flipping miracle that I have 5 days worth of produce in the freezer that will never go bad. By having a small sort of supplemental freezer (or canned or dried) food I never have to over buy produce again.
Meal planning is the most straightforward way to buying one what you need. Anyone else have moments where they buy too many random condiments? If you have meals planned for the next 7 days then you’ll cut down on buying random accessory ingredients “just in case”. Take the guess work out of what you need to buy for some fictitious meal. Write down what you want to make for the week and just buy what you need for that.
Meal Prepping is taking your plan for the week and just knocking it out, no questions asked. “Whats for dinner?” someone asked. Then Chuck Norris somehow punches a meal prep in their direction. “Same thing as yesterday!”.
The first time I did a full week of meal prep I instantly was like, “oh, no. NO, NO! This is not for me”. Because I have food blog I tried my hand at it a few more times then found my sweet spot. I think I’m kind of obsessed with it now.
There’s endless ways to do meal prep. You can prep one meal. Some people like having breakfast ready to go. Some people like having grab and go lunches. Other people like having dinner ready so they don’t have to cook and clean at the end of the night. Tons of people love doing 5 full day meal preps. I very much prefer prepping 1 meal and dessert leaving room for one meal/snacks unplanned a day. We aren’t really breakfast people so I’ll make a total of 8-10 meal prep containers and 10 dessert containers total for the two of us in a week. I think that’s my sweet spot.
I’m into meal prep because 1. I’m a pro at making cheap meal prep 2. because I’m too lazy & busy to both cook and clean multiple feasts a day. The amount of times I’ve wanted to eat a bowl of rice but didn’t want to cook it is like 99% of the time. I’ll happily clean a pot if it cooks 20 servings of rice but I don’t want to clean the same pot to cook 2 servings of rice. I just can not get myself to justify the process. Again, I’m a baby certain about things.
If you’re not into eating the same thing through out the week there’s a way to make 2 different lunch menus and 2 different dinner menus without a lot of extra work. Obviously the very best way to enjoy your meal prep is to not skimp on flavor. If I under salt or under flavor any meal by accident they pretty much get abandoned.
Figuring out my what…
No one can say what you should buy, make and eat. There are so many variables that make grocery shopping super individual.
- food habits
- cultural influences
- flavor preferences
- diet rules (paleo, vegan, keto, vegetarian, raw foodist, calorie counting)
- diet restrictions for medical reasons
- budget restriction
- how many people you shop for in your family
- activity level
- what foods you have access to
- how much food you can store
- what cooking appliances you have access to
What initially got me inspired to piece this puzzle together was looking up “How to extreme grocery budget” on youtube and not finding enough resources. I watched youtube videos of people showing me WHAT they bought, WHAT their meals looked like, WHAT was in their freezer. Dude, seeing what you eat doesn’t help me. Looking in your freezer is as helpful as opening up my freezer and taking a peek. Seeing WHAT you want to eat doesn’t directly help me understand HOW that fits into the bigger picture of grocery budgeting.
What you eat is 100% your choice. There’s cheap plant foods and expensive plant foods. There are cheap animal foods and expensive animal foods. Cheap beer and expensive beer. The point I’m making is that whatever your lifestyle is 99% of us in the USA can skim some extra dollars off the top and it can change our life.
When I talk about how I meal plan you’ll see that they’re carbohydrate centered. The rice I have in my pantry is literally 4 cents a serving. But DO NOT throw the baby out with the bath water. If you eat low carb or avoid grains everything I’m saying 100% applies to you.
There are trade offs to makes. A budget is simply saying that out of the whole pile of money you have for the year this amount will be put towards your goals while this other amount will go towards your expenses.
Here are some decision to frame your what
- do you prefer balanced meal
- do you choose meals dominant in protein, carbs or fat (instead of balanced)
- do you need high volume meals (like a mountain of veggies) in order to feel full
- do you have a small appetite
- do you have non-negotiable foods, foods you’re will not give up or replace
- do you prefer foods labeled organic
- are you store or brand loyal with some or all of your shopping
- any interest in meal prep, homemade freezer meals, crockpot/instant pot meals
- what foods do you buy but often avoid eating
- what foods are you quick to consume after buying
- do you buy a lot of snacks, junk foods, drinks, pre-made/frozen /packaged foods
- how often do you go out to eat (is this amount align with your goals?)
- what snacks fit your budget best
This list will help you get clear on your prioritizes, habits, and assumptions. Changing your shopping behavior will be easier when you know what your bright lines are.
What’s a bright line? Ultimately it’s a standard or rule that is clearly defined. If you want to start buying cheaper beer or to buy less packaged food using the word cheap might be too vague to get you to your goal. It’s unclear where you’re drawing the line which makes it impossible to determine if you’re actually achieving what you’ve set out to do.
Let’s say you’re a beer fanatic. You don’t want to give it up but you’re willing to commit to 6 months of saving money on beer. You make this is a 6 month non-negotiable rule so instead of making a promise to yourself to buy cheaper or less beer you establish a bright line around your beer budget. “Cheap” or “less” are vague terms. A bright line could be $25 a month on beer. Then you decide do you want to buy more cheap beer or simply buy fancy beer but much less of it. You know once you hit your $25 budget you’re done for the month since that’s your bright line. You do not cross that line.
Another thing to consider when thinking about your shopping priorities is to do what Ramit Sethi recommends in I Will Teach You To Be Rich (book mentioned above). He says “spend extravagantly on the things you love, and cut mercilessly on the things you don’t”. If you’re not in love with your laundry detergent then buy the cheapest one. If you’re not in love with your olive oil brand then buy the cheap one one.
Maybe it’s just me but I can’t tell the difference between 99% of package foods when comparing the store brand vs name brand (especially at aldi). I really think many of them could be manufactured by the same companies then privately labeled between different brands. If you compare store brand cookies vs oreo brand cookies the ingredients line up perfectly and the nutritional information is identical. If it’s not the same manufacturer than it’s practically the same recipes.
Figuring out my how…
- know how much your grocery budget is
- know how often you’ll grocery shop
- know what cornerstone carbs, fats, protein you’ll most often eat
- plan for redundancy, alternatives and backups to your food choices
- expect challenges to come up then look for solutions
- write out a menu or food lists to take the guess work out of future planning
- determine what your ideal serving of food will cost you
- determine if you need to start slowly or go all in with budgeting
- how to plan your grocery shopping
- plan a regular $21 food challenge
- monitoring and reviewing your results
- finding inspiration and mentors
- handling burn out and boredom
How much to spend on food is up to you. If you’ve been spending too much, too randomly or just shopping at expensive places then let’s assume you can potentially cut 30% off your grocery bill. Don’t ask me where I got that number from. My ambition has been to save 50% off of last years weekly grocery average. There are things I’ve written about here that I will start doing immediately which I think will give me more consistent results. But I’ve been moving the needle in the right direction for months now and it feels fantastic!
How often to buy groceries is another thing you’ll need to figure out. Once a week works best for us because I post recipe videos weekly for my food blog. I’ve heard of people buying groceries once a month. Since I’m dazzled by ambition that really impresses me. Maybe one day I’ll dip my toe in that pool. I think the longest we’ve gone without getting groceries was maybe 2 weeks.
Picking the cornerstone of foods to make up the bulk of our diet came about after spending 30 minutes inside of aldi photographing the price tag of foods I’m willing to regularly eat. I came home and did the math on what a realistic serving size would cost to eat and concluded what my staple foods would be.
I decided that the cheapest form of calories for my taste buds would carbs. Rice is my favorite option to make it in large batches. Beans, tortillas and pasta would my alternatives for when I need variety. *potatoes are a really close runner up.
Then I wrote out a list of meals I can make with my cornerstone ingredients to avoid decision fatigue and falling off the wagon.
If you’re doing a high fat diet then you’re at calorie/cost advantage. Bottled cooking oil is a super cheap.
If you’re doing a high protein diet there’s endless options here too. If you eat meat there’s a lot of cheap cuts, cured meat, ground meat, frozen meat and canned meat to choose from. Eggs and certain dairy products might be more affordable option. Protein powder can be a low cost protein option. A lot of protein powders average 90 cents a serving (20+g of protein). I’ve seen pea protein for 60 cents per serving for 27g protein. Beans are cheap which maybe too many carbs for a high protein diet. One overlooked protein source is actually gluten flour. One serving of gluten flour has damn near the same macros as 4oz of chicken breast for just 29 cents. Gluten flour can be used to make protein muffins cheaper than using protein powder or protein pancake mixes. You can make large batches of protein bars (if you’re inspired to). Lots of options.
Carbs are not required in order to save on your grocery bill. Its just my one of many options!
Look for redundancy in your system. The quote one is “Two is One, One is None”. Every area of this guide can have a backup. Maybe aldi is my main store but the traffic is driving me crazy so walmart which is closer talks me off the ledge. Maybe I get groceries once a week but I have enough buffer in my freezer and pantry to get by on an extra week in a pinch. Maybe rice is my cornerstone food but I’m so sick of eating it need a homemade pizza to sooth my soul and is less than $2. Maybe I have zero will to live if I have to make another meal prep & do all the dishes that come with that but I’ have ultra lazy recipes in my arsenal that will get me off the hook.
Expect problems to come up. There’s two mindsets you can have when dealing with any situation. Growth Mindset vs Fixed Mindset are your options. If there’s any area of your life where you’re doing a lot of hoping that things will come together you may have a fixed mindset.
A fixed mindset says that you know a certain amount of something. When you hit the limitation of what you know if feel might like a personal failure or you blame people & circumstances for the failed results. When you hit that inevitable wall you’ll either quit or keep doing the similar behavior expecting different results.
A growth mindset says that ability and understanding can be developed in any area your life. Through time and effort you can get better with any task if you apply deliberate work (not magical thinking or hope).
With a fixed mindset you might just do more of what you know where as a growth mindset you’ll see what more there is to learn so that your process gets smoother with better results. Do not work harder at a system that is flawed. Fix, improve and grow. If something you’re doing is endlessly hard consider that you’ve hit the limit of what you know and need to grow in order to expand and level up. If you think you just need more willpower you likely have a fixed mindset!
I figured out that there were days that we’d be in the car for 6-11 hours for work. No matter how I planned in my head “okay, I’ll eat right before we leave, I’ll eat again when we get home and bring a quart of water” it became crystal clear that we needed to bring a cooler packed with cold drinks, meal preps and snacks if I actually wanted to win the day. There was 2 weeks of me tweaking around the edges (maybe I just needed a larger lunch before we left? false.) I was becoming unproductive too early in the day because I realized having cold drinks and snacks would fix my problem. Having cold drinks while getting in and out of a hot car all day improved my quality of life by a million.
Notice the problems and brainstorm all of the solutions. Proactively look for any excuses, loopholes and obstacles that your mind offers. Are there loopholes in your mind saying, “Hey, lets buy this $1 vending machine bag of chips. It’s fine, you can afford it”. Notice how your mind lets you off the hook for staying on budget. Write out every single excuse and the circumstance surrounding the excuse. Do not just think this through. Write down ever single thing that comes to mind. This is If/Then Planning. If this problem comes up then here’s my solution.
By writing the excuses out on paper you might see a pattern. “Oh every time I’m at school I think it’s okay to buy soda from the vending machine. I say ‘just this one time but it happens everyday’. So instead spending money at the vending machine I’ll bring extra drinks to with me everyday”. Bam! Your predictable problem now has a solution.
Write out a menu or meal ideas. I have a homemade cheat sheet that stays on my fridge. As obvious as these meals are and as simple as the pool of ingredients I have to choose from is I still get foggy thinking when trying to actually plan my meals.
My cheat sheet pretty much is this. 4 main staple foods (rice, pasta, beans, tortillas) with a slew of variations. Think casseroles, crockpots, how different cultures use the same ingredients, mixing and matching the accessory ingredients and sauces, etc.
Figure out what an ideal meal would cost for you. If rice is literally 4 cents a serving and meal could include 1-3 servings of rice with an accessory of protein and/or veggies plus oil and spices then we can safely assume the meal would be maybe $1 or even 50 cents. I mean if I wanted to be monks about it I could have 4 servings of rice with 1 TB of oil and salt and it would cost maybe 25 cents. Granted I wouldn’t find a big bowl of rice without some high volume fibrous veggies satiating but maybe you would. But knowing that there are 25 cent, 50 cent and $1 meals out there you can help you figure out what you’d like your meals to cost.
As mentioned above you can totally cycle cheap meals with expensive meals. Maybe breakfast and lunch total $1.50 (madness, I know) but your dinner is $5 (living life on the edge). $6 a day = $42 a week for groceries is humble! That’s only $180 a month for groceries. I love it! Lots of ways to make this work for you just be sure to plan it.
Would it better to start slowly or jump all in? There’s two personality types regarding big lifestyle changes (according to Gretch Rubin’s Better Than Before book on habits). You might an all in kind of person who needs to go big in order to feel excited. The other type of person who needs to start small to not to get overwhelmed.
I think I’m the all-in kind of person. My history points to endless amounts of go big or go home but I am the same person who’s strictness will often eventually suffocate my commitments 4 or 10 years in. My point is try whatever method you’re draw to but do not ignore your feelings. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or bored then go back to the drawing board with your growth mindset and find a new way to accomplish your same goals. Or create better goals.
Planning your grocery shopping can be done a bunch of different ways. You can simply write down what you need. You can have a checklist or a phone app for grocery lists. You can preplan the meals for the week and only buy ingredients that will be eaten that week. You can buy fresh food only and rotate through freezer and pantry staples. Lots of options here.
Trying a $21 food challenge (once a month or once a season). A lady I chat with on instagram sent me a photo of this book called $21 Food Challenge (I think that’s the name). I looked into, watched few videos and asked her to tell me what she knew. Dude it was exactly what I was looking for. It was a framework for something I’d been thinking of doing.
This challenge isn’t meant to be a weekly lifestyle. If I understood it correctly the goal is to only buy $21 worth of whatever ingredients you absolutely need for the week while the bulk of your meals come from the long avoided food inside your pantry and freezer. If you did this once a month you could save thousands a year. The thing I really loved about this was that the author says (I think it was her in a video I watched) that you need to celebrate your efforts. If you normally spend $200 a week and end up doing $70 you should feel amazing since you’re moving in the right direction. If you feel disappointed that you spent $70 instead of $25 you might quit instead of slowly improving. I LOVE her relaxed and realistic spirit about people trying their best!
Monitoring the results has made a huge impact in my life. Before I started writing down how much I spent a week on groceries the bill was astronomical. It was embarrassing. I’m someone who knows better but what doesn’t get measured doesn’t gets managed. After months of tracking I was still spending way too much. Simply tracking how much I was spending helped reduce our grocery bill about 15% which was less than spectacular.
Writing down my weekly food costs as only half the equation. When I paired goal of $1 and under meals with my weekly costs I saw a 30% improvement! That was huge but my goal has been to get to a 50% savings which requires details I only considered once I started to consider the 6 areas of grocery shopping.
On my fridge is list that shows exactly what we’ve spent on groceries every week for months. When numbers are in my head its hard to look for trends and see opportunities. Now when I look at the data I see what where I’ve been stuck and how much room there is to grown.
Finding inspiration and mentors is a way to get out of your own head. We learn from others, see things that seemed unfathomable as completely possible from inspiration people and a good mentor will help you see your circumstance in a fresh way.
I wish I had a huge wealth of resources when it comes specifically to grocery budge mentors but I keep a pretty busy schedule so I haven’t looked wide and far. If you have any grocery budget blogs that you love leave a link below!
I love Mr Money Mustache’s blog. He has a post called Kill Your Food Budget. I read that YEARS go and it was the first time I had heard anyone point blank talk about 50 cent food servings. I was deeply inspiring but the information didn’t stick. At the time we dumpster dived for 9 months straight and never paid for food but once we transitioned to actually paying for food again I wasn’t thinking as systematic as I am now.
I read an old Frugalwoods post of them praising their 10 cent breakfast. I laughed about how their breakfast sounded like oatmeal sewage water run off. The post is called Breakfast The Hidden Destroyer. I made soooo much fun of that post that I was crying laughing for a good 2 days straight. But I was DEEPLY inspired by that post and it actually renewed the same old feelings I felt when I first read that Mr Money Mustache food budget post. The Frugalwood’s post got me in the growth mindset and I started looking into the HOW of extreme grocery budgeting.
I read a ton of posts on The Simple Dollar (specifically the food/budget related articles written by the founder Trent Hamm). I read article after article. He was definitely singing to the choir and it felt very assuring and supportive. It was in his blog post that he said if you’re not in love with your laundry detergent then buy the cheapest one. I love that!
I tried finding this gem of a post on same random blog to share with you but couldn’t find the link. I’m going to try to retell this bloggers story. Hopefully I don’t get too crazy on the details but here’s how my poor memory remembers it. I read this really in depth blog post where a family was on their last dollar when the husband lost his good job and was forced to take a low paying one. The wife just had their second kid. They were on an extreme grocery budget then found out that their baby needed an expensive baby formula due to major allergies. I want to say that it left them feeding themselves on $37 a week or something crazy! And this went on for like 2 years (again, I could be remember this wrong). She went into detail to what they ate (think tons of bottom dollar boxed food, discount milk, etc) and in the rare event that they were in dire need of food they’d receive an unexpected donation of food from friends and church. Eventually the husband got an great paying job and their grocery budget was able to grow.
Her comment section was filled with a mix of emotion. Many people were giving praise for how she handled the tough times. Lots of women were talking about their crazy low budgets (2 or 3 times her budge) and being astonished for how well she managed the situation. There was a small number of people criticizing how awful and unhealthy her diet was or how she needed to be all organic. She kindly replied to everyone including those harsher comments and pointed to the objective of needing to simply survived and that thriving had to wait until their income got got better.
That blog post kind of sealed the deal that I could try a little hard, aim a little higher and challenge my fixed mindset.
Handling burn out and boredom is part of anticipating problems, having a growth mindset and feeling the faint glimmer of resistance off in the distance. The number one thing you can do is praise yourself for doing your best. The higher your standard is the harder it may be to admit you’re doing your best but burnout is proof that you’ve actually been trying too hard. If you need to take a break one week, one month or even a full year in the span of a life time that really doesn’t matter. If you’re bored or burned out either take a break and find inspiration or simply let it go. Sometimes more of the same isn’t the solution. Instead of trying to save more money the real solution could be to find creative ways to earn more money. Again, a growth mindset doesn’t have to simply be about getting better at dealing with a problem. It could be about going around the problem.
Schedule breaks, schedule fancy/carefree meals, schedule variety and lean more towards your preferences than to just following the rules.
How to create habits that stick!
When changing your life you’re putting new expectations on yourself. How you manager expectation is fundamental to how you follow through.
Gretchen Rubin has many podcasts, articles, youtube talks and a full book dedicated to the “4 tendencies” or personality types that deal with expectation differently.
4 tendencies for how people deal with expectation:
- Obligers will meet others expectations but struggle to follow through on their own goals. Do you more easily take care of others need but struggle you take care of you self? If this is you you’ll need someone or something to hold you accountable so that you’ll follow through. If this is your spouse then you’ll likely need to help manage them to stay the course.
- Questioners will only follow through on things that make sense to them. They can not do something because someone told them to do it unless they are internally aligned. If this is you you’ll likely not need outer accountability with following through. However if your spouse is a questioner you can’t not expect them to just get on board with your idea of changing the grocery budget. If it doesn’t make sense to them you will meet resistance. Do not take it personally, it’s how they’re wired. Ask them what they want in a grocery budget and ask them how you two can meet in the middle with your new grocery goals.
- Rebels resist expectation whether its from other or from themselves. Rebels need to feel that what they’re doing is authentic and true to them in that moment. If you’re a rebel then reviewing your why every grocery day might help determine if a budget that week feels in line with your authenticity or not.
- Upholders (such as myself) can meet both outer and inner expectations. If my boss expects something of me I’ll likely do it without needing to be asked. And if I need something done I don’t require anyone outer accountability. If this is you then you’ll likely follow through. If this is your spouse they’ll likely meet the expectation.
Here’s a few articles I found last minute that show simple changes can have a huge impact on results:
- Don’t say “I can’t”, say “I don’t”. Saying “I can’t buy this because I’m on a budget” may lead to fall off the wagon much more than is you say “I don’t buy this because I’m on a budget”. Saying I don’t might keep you on tracker.
- Picking Identity Based Habits may be more powerful than results based habits. Saying “I’m the type of person who eat on $3 a day” is different than saying “I want to save money from my grocery bill”
- Know the difference between Motion and Action. Ahhh, I’ve been endlessly guilty of this. This article changed my life (I read it 5 minutes ago). This one is sneaky and even the smartest of people fall for this. Hint: They both feel like you’re doing something but one doesn’t bring about results.
- Design your life with your goal in mind. Motivation and inspiration are not reliable.
- How to bounce back after getting off track. 7 tips to get you back in order.
Changing your family’s life
If you’re responsible for yourself and no one else then all of the work is up to you, you’re the only obstacle and you all will reap all of the reward.
If you have a family then you’ll need to get the other paying members of the household to participate in your grocery budget goals. Do not tell people what they should do. Ask them what they want and see how their wants are aligned with your wants.
I listened to this great Afford Anything (not everything) podcast episode where the husband wanted his high earning/high spending family to cut their cost of living 70%. He said the smartest thing he did was approach his wife with this opening request. He asked her to write down the top ten sources of happiness in a given week. She wrote down things like spending time with family, wine, chocolate and her husband making them home cooked meals. This worked magic because their expensive house and expensive city was not on her list allowing the conversation to move wide open.
By knowing what your spouse wants you can remove the other 99% of things they don’t care about while respecting the small handful of things that fulfill their needs. I don’t have kids but I could imagine a kid kind of going nuts at a grocery store the same way I do. You could give them small agency to pick 1 snack a week or choose a couple of the family meals for the week.
I might sounds like a total poser here but I going to assume family members of all ages can feel fulfillment from contributing to a shared goal. Even if there’s growing pains from transitioning between what was to will be there is reward on the other side.