Budget Series: Frugal Living (Groceries)

Cut your Grocery bill in Half! Learn how one mom feeds her family of 4 well...all on a grocery budget of $200/month! The keys to frugal grocery shopping.

As I told you in my budget post, our monthly grocery budget is $200, which includes groceries and other (indoor) household needs.  Now, I’m going to tell you some of the ways that we make that grocery budget work for us.  (Please remember…this is not what I think everyone should do.  This is how I make our $200/month budget work.)

Note: A couple of commenters mentioned that if we really want to save money, we should focus on bigger things. To an extent, I agree. You can see here and here how we have pared down our budget when it comes to those “bigger” expenses. However, I have seen countless surveys showing the average family spending $800-$1200/month on grocery and household expenses, so I know that for some people, groceries are one of the biggest expenses.

>>>For more great tips, check out Crystal Paine’s Grocery University

Do without the junk.

This is probably the biggest money saver for us.  We don’t buy junk foods.  Cookies, candies, snack cakes, chips, ice cream, pop/soda, juice boxes, fruit snacks, etc.  If there is a really good sale, some of these junky items might end up in my cart as a treat.  But, these are typically NOT purchased at all, and it saves us a lot of money (and it’s healthier anyway because no one needs those foods).  For us, it comes down to a matter of necessity.  I know people who spend easily $200/month on just these types of foods.  When you only have $200 to spend on groceries, you have to really analyze your choices, and buy only the things that are going to be of nutritional benefit.

You can also find recipes for most of the treats you’d buy at the store by searching pinterest or your favorite blogs (like our real food graham cracker recipe!). You can find entire cookbooks of such recipes like this one and this one on Amazon.

Check out my Real Food Series for more great tips on doing without the junk.

Paper Free in the Kitchen

We do not use anything disposable in our kitchen.  We use cloth napkins, cloth towels, real plates, cups, and eating utensils.  We do not use paper (disposable) cups, plates, or eating utensils.  We keep a roll of paper towels on hand for draining grease from hamburger, but we literally use less than a roll a year.  For birthday parties, we have some lighter weight plastic plates that we typically use for this (similar to these ikea ones, but ours came from Wal-Mart or the Dollar Store and were less expensive…like $1 -$2 for a pack of 4).

Drink Water (from the tap)

My kids occasionally get 100% fruit juice that we water down at a ratio of 1:2 (2 parts water and 1 part real fruit juice).  But for the most part, we drink water because it’s better for us. My husband drinks tea, which is inexpensive.  I drink water.  We do not buy bottled water for a host of reasons.  If you are concerned about water quality, you can purchase a water filter and still save money over purchasing bottled water and/or other drinks like soda. You can also get some great re-usable water bottles (some with built-in filters) these days to make it more convenient.

Tip: If you don’t like water, try making your own flavored water like this refreshing combination.

Cook from scratch.

We do not buy convenience foods.  Frozen dinners, frozen pizza, packaged dinners, etc.  It is usually healthier and much less expensive to prepare things yourself.  A batch of biscuits costs about $.54 to make.  If I bought them refrigerated or frozen, they cost anywhere from $1-$4 or more.  Simple changes like that make a big difference.  Likewise, we usually purchase whole produce and not pre-cut, because the cost increases significantly.  (most whole produce lasts longer than cut up produce as well).

No individual packages

Bulk isn’t always better (take a calculator to determine price per unit).  However, individually packaged anything is nearly always going to be much more expensive.  Go-gurt is a LOT more per ounce than a 32 oz. tub of yogurt. You can even buy re-usable tubes to make your own freezable, squeezable yogurts. Don’t fall for those convenient pre-packaged servings.  They are bad for your budget and the environment.  Buy a full sized bag of chips and separate the servings yourself, into reusable bowls of course :)

Along the same lines, we rarely buy fun treats like string cheese. We buy blocks of cheese and cut it into cubes or slices. It’s a simple thing to do for yourself, but makes a big difference in cost.

Look for Clearance.

When I go shopping, I always check the manager’s specials.  I don’t tend to have the good luck that I have seen from others on the web, but I do get the occasional good deal.  At Meijer, I recently scored some nearly bad apples and oranges for $.33/lb.  I also recently found peanuts at Meijer for $.30/lb (that’s nearly 90% savings from the regular price!).

You can also frequently find good deals on meats that are at their “sell by” date.  Just prepare it right away, or stick it in your freezer until you’re ready to use it.

Stock up

Since my husband gets paid twice monthly, we have $100 in grocery money for 2 weeks.  Nearly every week, a good portion of that money goes for stocking up on things at a good price. For example, butter here is typically $4.39/lb for the cheapest kind they have. But it goes on sale every few months for $1.99-$2.49 and I stock up at that time, knowing I will use it before the expiry date. It’s worth it to save $1+ per package.  So, while I no longer use coupons, I do shop the sales and each week, probably half of my money is spent on that week’s meal plan, and half is spent on stocking up on things that are a great deal, so that when I do need them I can enjoy my $1.99/lb boneless skinless chicken breast instead of paying the current price of $3.69/lb.

Click here for a great post about getting the most out of Warehouse membership clubs.

Grow a Garden

This is a large part of our savings.  Every year we grow cucumbers, banana peppers, green peppers, tomatoes, corn, green beans.  I can green beans, freeze corn and peppers, make pickles from my cucumbers, and I can use the tomatoes for tomato juice and sauces, canned stewed tomatoes, etc.  This year, our strawberry plants are producing really well and we’ve picked around 2 gallons or so of strawberries.  If you can’t (or don’t want to) grow your own garden, purchase produce in season when it’s usually sold at rock bottom prices.

If you’ve never grown a garden, there are some great books out there to help you learn. It’s never too late! And, you can do a lot even with a little ground! Don’t think you can’t grow a garden just because you don’t have much of a yard, you might be surprised at what you can do. I LOVE the Backyard Homestead book. It is filled with great tips on growing your own food–on just 1/4 of an acre.

Meal Planning

Meal planning is a great way to help the grocery budget.  It puts you in complete control.  I can plan my meals based on our schedule (in order to avoid eating out!), what’s in my cabinet, what’s on sale, etc.

Speaking of eating out–we pretty much don’t. Eating out can be a huge budget breaker, so we choose to plan our meals for busy days instead and keep eating out as a fun treat rather than something that is driven by our schedule. See this post for more tips to avoid eating out.

Click here and here to see my posts on meal planning.

Stick to your list!

Most impulse buys tend to be more expensive, and items that you wouldn’t plan to purchase because they aren’t a good value.  Never go shopping on an empty stomach, and stick to your list.

Shop around for the best price.

There are a few items that we purchase name brand, but for the most part, we go for generic/store brands.  Also, the least expensive places may not be what you expect, so scan prices everywhere.  We’re not above shopping at bargain stores like Save-A-Lot or Aldi, and even the Dollar Tree or the Dollar General store can have better prices on some grocery items.

It can take some time, but it really is worth it to take a day to travel to a few different stores and make yourself a reminder of where the best deals are.

I live in a tiny town with 2 grocery stores. Sometimes we travel the 1 hr+ to get to a store like Aldi, Ruler Foods, etc. if we have other business to take care of in  those towns. Even wal-mart is in the next town over, 30 minutes away. But for the most part, I only have the 2 local grocery stores available to me.

Cut the waste

I think we could all stand to be less wasteful, but since we’re on such a limited budget we’re a lot more careful about it.  Here are some of the ways we do that:

  • We all start with small portions on our plates. My boys are big eaters, but sometimes can get distracted which can lead to waste. Sometimes I start them out with half a sandwich (and on hearty, homemade wheat sourdough bread, sometimes that is enough!). I would rather start out small and make them another if they are still hungry than to waste food.
  • Produce.  When we buy a bag of salad or head of lettuce, I plan my meals around it so that we have salad several times in a few days so it won’t be wasted.  If I need a fresh onion or green pepper for a recipe (like corn and black bean salsa, or corn salad), I cut up the unused portion and freeze for cooking with later.  Overripe fruit can be used in cooking, or frozen for cooking later (we love to add frozen fruit to oatmeal in the mornings.  It’s perfect for the boys because the frozen fruit cools down hot the oatmeal).
  • Leftovers.  When making my weekly meal plan, I always plan for leftovers, so that I can use them and nothing is wasted.

A couple of notes:

-We do not purchase all organic or all local meats. Other than that, we do follow a real food, no processed diet.  We are constantly making small changes to get us closer to that goal of all organic/local. [Tip: Read this if you think you can’t afford to eat real food.]

-Coupons are a great way to save money.  You absolutely can get good food, good household and cleaning items for super cheap.  However, I stopped couponing a few years ago. Coupons are not necessary for a low budget.

You can make the most of your grocery budget without using coupons. 

Related Resources

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Read all the posts in my Get out of debt on a low income budget series.

Debt Reduction Series Budget TipsPhoto Credit

(Disclaimer: I am NOT a financial advisor. I am just a mom with a family living on a single income and I want to encourage others that it is possible to live on a tight budget and still have your needs met and be content…and get out of debt! I really hope that our personal budget information will help someone.)

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