Wednesday, February 19, 2014

7 Simple Ways I Cut Our Food Budget in Half: A Non-Guru's "Guide" to Groceries & Meals

The Backstory {Because I'm a writer and even a post about groceries has a backstory.}

I'm no guru about anything. Unless there's a guru status on laundry-avoidance because I've got that one nailed.

I'm not a decorating expert or a financial expert or a parenting expert. I've got a knack for certain things but not to the extent that I can professionalize any of it.

I'm a real wife and a real mom and a real homemaker, somewhat of a hacker and a slacker. I'm long on dreaming but short on patience and follow-through. And though I love finding better ways to do everyday tasks, I become easily overwhelmed by complicated systems and binders and planning sheets. Don't get me wrong, I actually love organizing and plannerly products and to-do lists. I can browse the aisles of Staples for hours. But I've learned that for me, I have to keep systems, procedures, and tasks as simple and personalized as possible.

I use a spiral notebook, pencil, and calculator to budget and pay bills. I keep a one-week dry-erase calendar on our fridge for our family schedule and meals.

The way I plan meals and buy groceries is equally simple.

These aren't the sort of posts I normally do. But because meal-planning and grocery-shopping are tasks that all of us have to do, I thought I'd share my easy, non-guru methods with the rest of you. Take it or leave it. There are lots of actual experts with entire blogs and books devoted to this subject. But if you want a Cliff's Notes / non-extreme / no coupons way to approach the often-dreaded task of feeding your family easily and economically, perhaps you'll find some encouragement here.

This year my husband and I set some rather audacious financial goals. We decided we were ready to get super serious about some endeavors that we've put off because we've had more important issues to tackle. Timing is everything. We're at a good place and on the same page. We've squinted at the numbers and squeezed every dime out of each possible category.

The trickle-down effect is this: we pretty much cut our food budget in half. Because we're just getting started on this "adventure," I can't tell you how well it's going to work long-term. I can only tell you how it's working so far through February.

Can I be honest? I hate even writing about money and "systems" and goals. Doing so makes me accountable. But deep down I know that accountability is a needful thing. It would thrill me to be able to update you 6 months from now and say, "The non-guru guide is still working! We're saving money! We're still not starving!"

But the only way to reach our goals is if we're realistic and honest about ourselves, our spouses, and our individual situations. After many fits and starts over the years, months of couponing and stockpiling and knowing the amount of time it takes and mental energy it requires and physical exhaustion I feel afterward, I decided to take a mostly non-couponing, super realistic approach to planning and shopping.

I've devoted the last two-ish years to rest. And during those two years my husband and I resolved that I would not take on added stress and time-consuming endeavors, like coupons and being hyper-vigilant about the grocery budget. My goal was to keep food in the house, lunches in the lunchboxes, and dinner on the table. Sure, I was mindful of food prices and I saved when I could but I didn't stress or obsess. This was all fine and good and necessary for those two years. In the process, however, I also got a little bit lazy.

I'm in a different place now, ready and able to be more proactive about my responsibilities. But proactive in a reasonable and therefore {hopefully} sustainable way. This is not a sprint; it's a marathon. I need a system that can work long-term.

So here's my non-fancy / realistic / no-coupon way of slashing our food budget. In half. {Yes, it's possible.}


The Plan {Because even if you hate plans, you've got to have one. A plan is 90% of the battle.}

1. A monthly plan. I plan out all the meals I'll make in a month and approximately how many leftover meals we'll also have. I don't assign meals to a day. That's too hard-core and inflexible for me. I write out our meals one week at a time but I have a plan for the meals I'll make over the month. A month's worth of meals + lunch stuff + breakfast stuff gives me my grocery list for the month.

If this sounds like too much work and planning, I'll let you in on a secret. It took me ten minutes. No lie.

Behold my very sophisticated system. {And terrible photo.}

I make a list of our meals and how many times I'll make it or how many leftover meals it will provide. When my tally reaches 30 meals or so, I'm done. Then it's on to the grocery list.

2. Make a grocery list based on my monthly menu. I've been surprised at how little time this takes. Maybe 20 minutes? Then I divide up what I'm going to purchase where.

3. Shop with purpose & with a plan. I'm now doing my shopping at two main stores, Aldi and Costco. I make one big trip to both stores in a month and those two trips get most of what we need. I purchase more milk, bread, and produce in between but I'm trying to get most of this stuff at Aldi too. A new one just opened up not too far away so that's making it easier.

4. Paying cash. We get paid once a month and that means we budget, pay bills, and plan groceries and meals within a monthly scope. Years ago I did the cash system for groceries and it really does make a difference so I'm doing it again. 

When you hand over those hard-earned bills to the cashier, you think twice about how much you really need something. When you know that cash has to last to the end of the month, you're careful with it. I've read that paying cash for your groceries lowers your bill by 30% on average.

5. No eating out. Not that we did much of that anyway. It was more of the little things that added up. A drink from the drive-thru. A Starbucks treat. Lunch at the coffee shop. This means more planning ahead and being disciplined {such a painful word} and delayed gratification. I'll be honest...this is embarrassingly hard for me. My love language is food treats. And also lip gloss.

6. Our meals are simple-ish. I enjoy really good food. I even enjoy making the occasional gourmet dish or dessert. But day in and day out, my time and energy and passions don't jive with fussy meals. I've found what works for us and there's a fair amount of repetition. But we enjoy a hot meal most nights around our kitchen table and that's my definition of win.

7. Know yourself. There are many ways to save big on your food budget but I've learned that none of them will work unless it's realistic and doable for you.

My time, sanity, and health are valuable and finite. If meal-planning and grocery-shopping and money-saving uses up a lot of that time, sanity or health, then I may have saved bunches of money but I've paid a hefty price.


Full disclosure. I didn't think we could stay within this budget without coupons, store-hopping, making everything from scratch, and deprivation. I thought it would take more time than it does. I thought I'd be stressed. I thought I'd be grumpy over what I couldn't buy. I've never been so happy to be wrong.

A few more things. We eat healthy-ish but it's far from ideal. I try to purchase mostly real, whole food. I attempt to avoid too many processed foods but I don't obsess. While I would love to buy mostly organic and local, it's not within our current budget. I will be able to do a bit more of this during farmer's market season. We don't have food allergies nor are we gluten-free or dairy-free. In short, we do the best we can with the resources we have and I don't fret about imperfections. Each family's needs and priorities are different and one's budget will obviously reflect those differences.

Have more questions? {Why Aldi? Why Costco? What do you cook? What is your monthly food budget?} Ask away in the comments and I'll do my best to answer you there.


This post linked to {and featured on} the Grace at Home Party hosted by the lovely Richella at Imparting Grace

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  1. This is almost exactly what we do. :) Except we do eat out...there are months when we just decide we're not going to. And it's SO hard for me, too!

    1. Farmgirl,

      Well then...I'm in exceptionally good company. And so glad that this works for you month in and month out! Aren't we both glad that chips and salsa are so cheap?

  2. Have I told you lately that I love how relaxed you've become? It becomes you.

    Great post. Do-able. Organized enough to give a feeling of accomplishment without a feeling of slavery.


  3. What IS your monthly food budget? Up here, we are drowning in debt and a lot, I MEAN A LOT of our $ goes to groceries.

    1. Lolly, it's $500 for a family of 5. And yes, I do buy meat. And also cheese. We eat entirely too much cheese!

  4. We have the same exact system, and like you I love the thought of being super organized but the process of getting there and actually living it out gives me hives. We keep it really simple. Also, we feed us five for about 500 a month right now, cash only. Somedays it's really, really, hard. No, most days it's that way. But we've made a goal to live more simply and save more earnestly, and also (though this makes no sense) give more extravagantly. Our finances are quite a wild ride right now. But God has started to open up doors of blessing-and being able to walk in trust with him is the best. So I guess it's about way more than groceries for us.

    1. Gina, that's what we spend too! {Why am I surprised?} : ) You're right--it's hard. But not impossible.

  5. I love this post, Scooper. I like hearing from non-gurus, to be honest. Gurus are sometimes too hard to emulate, you know? I want to know what works for real people who aren't obsessing but who are succeeding.

    I have a nearby Costco and a nearby Aldi, so I could follow your tips. If you don't mind sharing the info, I'd love to know what your monthly food budget is. I think our expenditures are ridiculous, but I find that I just don't know what's reasonable and do-able any more. I know that some bloggers feed their families of 7 for something like $185 per month. . . ! Reading those stories is challenging but not encouraging, you know?

    I want to become more goal-oriented, so I'd love to know more specifics about what you're doing! :)

    Love you, friend.

  6. This is helpful because our family is in a similar place. Needing more food than ever (because teenagers, and soccer), yet trying desperately to cut our budget in every area (because college). I want to do well at this. But it's a constant struggle. My questions are: How do you maximize Aldi shopping? I shop there regularly, but there are quite a few things my family doesn't care for. And I have the same question regarding Costco-what specifically do you buy at each store and how do you maximize the benefits of each?

    ps I tried to find you on facebook, but obvs you don't know who I am. I'd love to connect there too!

    1. Elizabeth, I sent you an e-mail too but thought I'd post it here in case anyone else wants the low-down.
      It takes some time plus trial and error to figure out what works from each place. Here's my go-to stuff {as best I can think of} from each place:

      * Chips
      * Fair Trade coffee
      * Oatmeal
      * Sometimes their weekly meat special. I recently discovered this. Each week they do a weekly meat special and they advertise it online and on the store flyer. Boneless, skinless chicken for $1.59 a pound. 5 lbs of 75 / 25 ground beef for $8.99. These are great to stock up on and freeze.
      * Lunch meat
      * Sometimes gourmet cheese like Brie or goat cheese {they have great prices on good cheeses.}
      * Produce--they have the best produce prices around.
      * Canned goods like black beans
      * Baking items and spices
      * Milk, bread, eggs, half and half, sour cream, yogurt
      * Sausage
      * Benton brand animal crackers {they taste like McDonald cookies from when I was a kid.} : )

      * High-count boxes of granola bars
      * Cereal
      * Snack and lunchbox items like Goldfish and Ritz crackers. Also a good place for chips.
      * Marinara sauce {the Kirkland brand 3-pack is our favorite}
      * Peanut butter, jelly
      * Kirkland brand chocolate chips
      * Chicken stock
      * Canned diced tomatoes and tomato sauce
      * Ketchup and parmesan cheese
      * Large blocks of sharp cheddar cheese
      * Yogurt {when it's on sale}
      * Large bag of frozen meatballs {Kirkland brand.} These are really yummy cooked in the marinara sauce.
      * Paper towels and Kirkland brand toilet paper
      * Laundry detergent and dish tabs
      * Large bag Kirkland trail mix

      For breakfast we do cereal, oatmeal, eggs, or pancakes. For dinner I do a lot of one dish dinners, hearty soups, baked potato bar, spaghetti and meatballs, tacos or burritos, and crock-pot meals. Nothing fancy but I feel like we eat well. That gives you an idea. If you make your meal plan for the month, you could try and buy the things you need for those meals at Costco or Aldi instead of at your normal shopping place. I used to get most of my stuff at Super Walmart but Aldi and Costco end up being cheaper. Just try and keep a price list at first and that may help. Once you get more familiar with things, you won't need it. I find I need a super simple approach to this or it won't last!

  7. This is so good. And such a breath of fresh air. I felt exactly the same way when I was couponing and store hopping!

    I would love a look at some of your favorite dishes. I feel like I can think of about three things all the time!

  8. The gurus make me crazy. Oh, who am I kidding, so does budgeting. I won't even tell you what I spent at the store the other day for a week-ish. It would make you cry. I obviously need to follow some of your tips;)

  9. This is so good. I waffle back and forth with couponing/store-hopping and just trying to get the basics from Aldi. It's freeing isn't it to just know we're doing the best we can. I like to buy bulk amounts of meat at Costco but most of the other basics I can get at Aldi.

  10. I use coupons now, but I know I will take a break this summer and, maybe, fall. Aldi is close by, and Sam's. Publix is closest, and B1G1 prices really do beat the deals I've found on dry goods at other stores...but probably not by a whole lot. My biggest hurdle is PLANNING. You're absolutely right. That's 90% of the battle right there. Thanks for sharing your simple way of going about the whole thing. :)

  11. Hi! I came here via Richella's blog. I feed my family of 3 for a little less than $400/month, but man oh man is it hard. We DO have food allergies, and the little guy with the allergies is a super picky eater, so there's that to contend with. We eat 99% (that is an arbitrary #) organic, and I shop at Aldi, Trader Joes, Costco, and our local Amish market. Sometimes I get so bored with the same meals all the time. I bake a lot. A LOT. And we recently started replacing our weekly "treat" of take out pizza with homemade, for less than 1/2 the price. It is FABULOUS, and way, way easier than I imagined. Great post!

  12. This is almost the same way I do my shopping. I used to be an extreme couponer, but I just don't have the time or inclination for that any more. I like to keep things simple, basic, and healthy. Glad to know I'm not alone.

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