I recently had a reader reach out to me because he was concerned about how much money his family is spending on groceries. He felt it was time to find ways to reduce this budget category. Today I wanted to share some of my thoughts on this topic, and open up a conversation because I know there is a lot of collective wisdom from my frugal-minded readers!
Step one: Evaluate the Budget
Now it certainly sounds like my reader knows exactly how much his family is spending per month on groceries. If you’ve not taken that first step, I urge you to do so! It’s hard to know how much you can save if you first don’t know how much you’re spending.
Not sure where to start? I’ve written over the summer about how we’ve started with the plan You Need a Budget, and I highly, highly recommend it. It’s easy to use and will provide you with the benchmarks you need to make decisions. In a month or two, you’ll be able to see exactly how much you’re spending.
Once you have those numbers in front of you, I want you to consider your family’s unique situation. The truth is what works for one family may be different for another – and that’s OK. Here are some questions you might ask:
- How much eating out do you do in a month? (If it’s lower, your grocery budget may be a bit higher.)
- Are there members of your family on a special diet?
- Are there certain foods important to you to incorporate into your diet? (For example, you try to buy organic wherever possible, or want to keep the CSA you have going with the local farm.)
- What items are you including in your grocery budget? (Are you also including health, beauty, and household items?)
When looking at your grocery budget, look at it in the larger context of your family budget and values. I know some people who are more than willing to cut down on other areas so they can have a larger grocery budget. Other people may want as bare bones of a grocery budget as possible so they can focus on paying down debt or some other goal. It’s also possible that certain months of the year may warrant larger budgets (for instance, holiday months).
Step two: Set reasonable Goals
So often when we decide to make a change, we feel it must be big and dramatic! (Just look at how the diet and weight loss industry uses this approach.) In my experience, however, it’s often the small, gradual changes that we’re most likely to sustain. What this requires: patience and restraint!
Let’s say you’re currently spending $1,000 per month on your groceries. Your first tendency may be to slash it by a lot – say 50%. However, knowingly or not, you’ve built a number of habits and patterns that land you at that $1,000 per month. Habits and patterns that may take a lot of hard work to dismantle. Setting a goal that’s unrealistic will set you up to feel like you’ve failed – and ultimately, give up.
Instead, consider slashing your budget by a reasonable amount. That may be 10-15%. In this scenario, that’s $100-150 per month – certainly nothing to sneeze at. What you want: quick successes to keep you motivated to continue.
Step three: Pay attention to Shopping Habits
I can’t reiterate enough how patterns and habits play into overspending on groceries. Bring these into focus and more often than not, you can reduce your spending. Let me clarify by providing some ideas to get you thinking.
- Do you take the time to plan your menu for the week, or do you often “wing it?”
- Do you find yourself shopping when you’re tired and/or hungry?
- Do you shop with your kids or other family members or by yourself?
- How tempted are you to make impulse purchases when shopping?
- Do you shop at the store with the best prices or the one that’s more conveniently located to you?
- Do you take the time to review your grocery budget before or after you shop?
- How many times do you visit the store each week?
That last question is one I’m personally trying to work on. I know we do better with our spending when we simply reduce the number of times we visit the store each week. It’s easy to excuse $20 or $30 trips as “just getting a few things for the weekend,” but you’d be surprised how quickly these add up!
One surprising way I’ve found to save is using Fred Meyer’s ClickList service (other Kroger-affiliated stores also use this). By placing my order online, I’m not setting foot in the store and can’t be tempted by making unplanned purchases! I like to place my order while simultaneously planning my menu for the week. I also try to think about lunches, snacks, and other treats that may tempt me to make those little middle-of-the-week trips. (I really do think those are the budget busters!)
Bottom line, pay as much attention to your shopping habits as you are what goes in your cart! See if you can reduce your shopping trips from 3 times a week to 2 and limit your time in the store. Try shopping at a new-to-you store, or skipping the late night snack run. Take the time to plan your menu and then stick with it.
Step four: Find Easy Ways to Save
You might be surprised to hear me say it, but I don’t think you need to become a crazy couponer in order to save big on your groceries. Again, when you try to make a huge change in the way you do things, you’re less likely to stick with it for the long haul. Instead, find ways that are small and easy to save. As you get comfortable with those, you can always expand from there.
Here are a few simple suggestions:
- Learn how the rewards and/or digital coupon offers work at your store.
- Start taking 5 minutes out before you head to the store to review the ad online. (Bonus points: See if you can plan your menu around sale produce and meat!)
- Consider taking your grocery budget money out in cash each week to ensure you meet your goals.
- Nix some item from your grocery budget that’s truly unnecessary to see if it makes a difference at the end of the month. (For example, nix the wine or soda. Switch from name-brand detergent to generic.)
- Choose recipes that are frugal in nature and/or that you could create in batch to freeze.
What other small steps could you implement?
Step five: Evaluate
At the end of a month, see where you land. Where you able to meet your goals, and in a way that didn’t tax you too much? Again, your goal is to reduce your spending, but to do so in a way that’s sustainable.
Now it’s your turn. I’d love to hear from readers that have successfully slashed their grocery budgets. What habits did you change to get there? What advice and encouragement would you offer to my reader? I’d love it if you’d leave your comments below!