Since starting this blog, I’ve also become a financial coach. I help people figure out their goals, determine what they need to do to get there and create a plan for them to follow. I love coaching and motivating people. Personal finance is so taboo that many people don’t know where to go for good advice.
Usually what I do with my coaching clients is have them go over their expenses for a couple months and write down how much they spend. Then, we divide the expenses into categories and see how the math adds up.
Inevitably, they’re surprised by how much they spend. When you bring home $2,000 a month, it’s hard to fathom spending it all. That’s why tracking your expenses is so important – it’s the only way to see where the leaks are in your budget.
A major reason for all those leaks? Grocery shopping.
Why Groceries Matter
There are two types of expenses in your budget – fixed and variable. Fixed expenses stay the same every month; these include your rent, internet bill and car insurance. No matter what happens, your rent will be the same next month and the month after that.
Variable expenses change based on your usage and the time of the year, like utilities, gas and of course, groceries. It’s easy to plan ahead for some variable expenses. For example, the amount of gas I use doesn’t change that much month-to-month. I use budget billing for my heating and electricity, so I get the same bill every month, and I also use an HSA that I contribute to monthly and pay any medical bills out of that.
But groceries? Groceries can fluctuate by as much as $200 a month. I’ve had months where I spent $100 for one person and months where my husband and I dropped $600 on food.
When you’re on a tight budget and are paying off student loans or credit card bills, every extra dollar matters. The less you spend on groceries, the faster you can be debt free.
For most people, groceries are their biggest category after housing, transportation, and insurance, and when you change how much you spend on the biggest category, you see the biggest results.
The Biggest Way to Save on Groceries
Meal Plan Ahead of Time
It won’t surprise you that the biggest way to save on groceries is to meal plan before you shop. Meal planning lets you create meals based on what you already have, so you’re not buying all your ingredients from scratch. For example, if you already have chicken thighs in the freezer, why make spaghetti and meatballs? If you already have green peppers and tortillas, why not make fajitas?
It’s like buying clothes: when I buy a new shirt, I run through what I already own. Will this shirt match any of my pants or skirts? Can I wear it for multiple occasions? If it fails the closet test, I put it back. That’s because if I buy a shirt and don’t have anything to match it with, I won’t be able to wear it or I’ll have to buy a set of pants to match. That’s wasteful and inefficient.
Groceries are the same. Plan your meals around what you already have and then go grocery shopping for the rest. I am really, really bad at meal planning, but my husband is a whiz at it. He can scan through our freezer and quickly decide what kind of meal he can make while not buying a ton of new ingredients.
If you’re more like me, then meal planning is scary, overwhelming and BORING. And when something is overwhelming, I tend to avoid it. That’s why I recommend the $5 Meal Plan Service from my friend Erin Chase. She’s a mom of four boys and has created meal plans where each meal costs less than $2 per person.
Even though I’m not a mom, her recipes still work because they’re quick, good and easy-to-understand. Plus, you can customize by specific requests (vegetarian, gluten free, etc) and even type in what you have to get recipe suggestions. Erin also offers slow cooker meals, 20-minute meals and slow-cooker meals – you get 8 total meals for $5 a month.
If you don’t want to pay or are a little more carefree in your meal planning, there’s other sites that can help you, like Foodily. You type in the ingredients you have and the site spits out recipe ideas. I used to use sites like these ALL THE TIME when I lived alone, because I hated spending a lot of money on groceries and I didn’t want to waste the food I already had.
For example, if I have potatoes and carrots chillin’ in my fridge, I can type those ingredients into Foodily and it’ll spit out some recipe ideas. How cool is that? Seriously, this site rocks.
In general, we always decide what to cook based on what we already have, whether that’s something in the fridge, pantry or freezer. Starting there will always be cheaper, more efficient and less wasteful.
Take Stock of What You Already Have
Unless you regularly cycle through your pantry, you probably have some food you’ve forgotten about. Case in point: in college, I had a bad habit of buying brown sugar. Every time I went to the grocery store, I convinced myself that I didn’t have any brown sugar at home, so I’d buy a box. At the end of the semester, I had five boxes of brown sugar that had gone stale.
Before you go to the grocery store, take stock of what you already have. Why? Because today I accidentally found some cous cous in the pantry, enough for at least two meals. I also forgot about some falafels and turkey meatballs I have in the freezer. When you shop on a regular basis, it’s hard to remember if you’ve used up everything from your last visit.
Every time my husband and I get ready to go to Costco, we take a quick scan of our cabinets, so it’s rare we buy something already in our pantry. I don’t have to wonder if we have canned tuna, because I checked the house before I left.
Eat from the Freezer
How often do you look inside the freezer to see what you already have? Seriously. Every time I have to dig around in the freezer for ground beef or leftover pasta sauce, I end finding something I’d forgotten about.
My husband and I freeze a lot of stuff and every couple of weeks, we take a couple days to defrost and eat few meal’s worth of leftovers. It’s not as exciting as a hot meal straight from the stove, but it saves us time and money. Plus, there’s no big pile of dishes to clean up afterwards!
Food stored in the freezer doesn’t go bad as quickly, so it’s easy to forget about it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stored away something only to find it right before I moved out.
Shop with a Plan
Have you ever gone grocery shopping without a list? I once did this at Target. I assumed I’d wander the aisles until I remembered what I needed it. It was a disaster. I tried to walk around each aisle, staring intently at plastic wrap and deli meat and wondering if I needed them.
Never shop without a plan. I try to keep a notepad near the fridge where I can quickly note what I need, so when I do go to the store, I’m only buying the essentials. My husband and I also keep a list of what we buy from Costco so when we go there, we just shop based on what the list says. You can do this using a notetaking app or with a physical list – just try a couple of methods to see what works for you.
Be Wary of Sales
Do you ever notice how excited you get when something is on sale? It’s like I can feel the dopamine rushing to my brain when I see a great deal. “Oh my god, I have to get this – it’s on sale!!” I think to myself.
But sometimes the sales are how I get tricked into buying something I don’t really need.
Once after Thanksgiving, I was visiting my then-boyfriend at Whole Foods, where he worked at the time. He told me I should look around the store for any special deals on Thanksgiving-related foods, since they were heavily discounted. I wandered around until I found frozen turkey legs at a huge discount.
Of course, I didn’t really know what I was going to do with frozen turkey legs. I mean, does anyone actually buy raw turkey outside of Thanksgiving? No, they don’t. That’s why the turkey was on sale. Those frozen turkey legs sat in my freezer for months until I finally tossed them.
Don’t get excited just because something is on sale. If it’s an item you love, like Rocky Road ice cream, sure, stock up on a few. But if it’s something you don’t really care that much about, like turkey legs, let it go. It’s better to spend $20 on your favorite meal than $10 on food you hate.
Find Cheap Recipe Ideas
After I graduated from college, I spent a summer interning at a magazine and working part-time at a call center. My internship was unpaid and since I was trying to be an adult, I promised my parents I’d pay for all my expenses myself. It finally hit me that I had left the comforts of university life for the uncertainty of the real world. To that end, I started really looking at my budget, especially my groceries.
I relied on blogs like Budget Bytes for cheap recipes. Some of them were a miss, but most of them I really liked it. Finding recipes is such a chore, and it can be hard if you don’t want to buy a bunch of expensive spices and ingredients.