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How To Make A Food Budget AND Stick To It: Mini Series Part 2

In part one of this mini-series we looked at cutting back your “eating out” expenses. Now in part two, we’re going to take a look at the other major food category – the food you prepare at home, better known as your “grocery budget”.

What Does Your Grocery Shopping Look Like?

A few years ago I went to the grocery store with: no plan, no budget, no meal ideas and often on an empty stomach. In the blink of an eye, my cart would be over flowing with over-priced and unnecessary items. Worse yet, it would make me so angry when a few days later I would realize how much food was literally being wasted because we couldn’t eat it fast enough. But I seemed to be on a downward spiral – even though I hated spending so much and didn’t like wasting food, I didn’t change my actions and the pattern continued. Have you been there before? Perhaps you’re there now? If that sounds like you, then this post is for you.

The Turn Around

Since starting our Total Money Makeover journey in 2012 – we’ve been working hard to limit our family’s budget and pay off debt using the debt snowball. As I shared in part one of this series, I frequently talk to other women about our family budget and experiences while following Dave Ramsey’s financial plan. It turns out many of us are in the same boat, but we never talk about it. Well the gigs up ladies, it’s time to talk about it. It’s time to plan ahead and get our finances in order one step (or meal) at a time!

Setting A Grocery Budget

In order to set a grocery budget, it might be good to take a look at your current spending. Using your online banking or old receipts, try to get a ball park idea of how much money you spend on average in a month on groceries. How does that number make you feel? Dave Ramsey recommends that your total food budget (eating out AND groceries) is between 5 and 15 percent of your monthly income. Do you fall in that range? (Our family shoots for the 5-8% range, sometimes less if we can manage it.)

Now that you know how much you’re spending, there are few other questions you need to ask yourself to start finding a budget to aim for:

  • How many people in your family?
  • What ages are your family members? (A 16 year old active boy will eat a lot more than a 5 year old.)
  • What is everyone’s physical activity level?
  • Do you work outside the home? (It’s harder to prepare home cooked meal for work lunches and sometimes requires a little extra planning.)

After answering all of these questions, what did you come up with? If you’re like most families, you’ve realized you’re spending way too much on food. What would be a good range for your family? To figure this out, take your monthly household (bring home) income and multiply to find out what your ‘recommended’ grocery budget range would be on the Dave Ramsey program. Here’s how that might look:

Monthly Household Income: $3,000 If you multiply $3,000 by .05 (or 5%), you’ll get $150. This is the low end of your ‘recommended’ monthly grocery budget. If you take the same $3,000 and multiply by .15 you’ll get $450. That means that a family bringing home $3,000 per month should spend (with groceries and eating out combined) a total of $150-$450 per month on food. 

What is your ‘recommended’ grocery budget range? How does that compare to your current grocery shopping habits? If you now realize your monthly food budget is in need of an overhaul, I’m here to help.

Tips For Making This Transition Successful

Just like in part 1 of this series, there are some specific steps you can take to start limiting your food budget. Some of these ideas are easier than others. Some require more time, some don’t. You have to do what works for your family. If you’re a busy, single, working mom you may not have time to look into options that use up extra margin time, like couponing. But if you’re a stay at home mom with school aged children, that might be a perfect option for you. Just be aware that we’re all different, and if you can’t do something right now that doesn’t mean you can’t ever do it, just not right now.

  1. Start Small – If your family is accustomed to spending hundreds of  dollars on groceries each week, instantly dropping down to a budget of $100 is going to be a disaster, and you’ll all be left thinking that budgets don’t work for your family. Instead take baby steps – maybe try decreasing your budget by $100 per week for the next few weeks until you’ve reached your grocery budget goal for example.
  2. Shop With Cash & Calculator In Hand – Seriously. Even without meal planning, couponing or budgeting, this one step alone WILL make a difference in the way you shop. Studies have found that people spend more when paying via card compared to cash. If you go into the store knowing that you only have one crisp $100 bill to pay then you have no choice but to limit your unnecessary purchases and stick within you goal. As my son and I complete our grocery shopping every two weeks I walk through the store with my phone in hand, adding up prices while we go. It’s also a great way to start teaching your kids about budgets and money. Although my son is only 2, he is already very accustomed to hearing phrases like “we don’t have enough money in the grocery budget to buy orange juice & chocolate milk this week, so you need to choose one.” Since we’ve started early, I know it won’t be a difficult transition to when he’s 10, and we need to explain the reason he can’t have every new toy he desires. (Budgeting bonus!)
  3. Make A List & Never Shop On An Empty Stomach – Plan ahead. Although meal planning, coming up, is the BEST way to plan ahead, just making a list and sticking to it will go a long way. Avoid the moment in the butter aisle where you ask yourself – “do I need more butter?” Make a list before you go to the store and commit to ONLY buying what’s on the list, period. No exceptions for any reason. If you get home and realize you missed something, guess what? You’ll improvise and survive. And seriously… never shop on an empty stomach. Everything will look tastier on an empty stomach and you’ll fill your cart with those unnecessary tasty treats.
  4. Shop At A Cheaper Store – This won’t surprise many of you – but I am a huge fan of Aldi. I’ve found that I save an average of 20% every time I shop there and the quality of their products are fantastic. Find a local Aldi or similar store and check it out. Even if you only transition to doing part of your shopping there, you’ll save money. Don’t believe me? Check out my price compare post from last September.
  5. Do Not Buy In Bulk Unless You Have The Funds – O.K. just go with me for a minute. I know that buying in bulk can help you save money in the long run, but the problem is, we’re not going for long run, we’re going for right now. In order to limit your food budget you need to only purchase the items you need this month. If you get to the end of the month and you have an extra $30 in your food budget, then by all means go purchase a gallon of pickles, but otherwise leave the bulk buying for when you have more money in your monthly food budget to play around with.
  6. Meal Plan – This is the BIG ONE. This is the number 1 way that my family has cut down our food budget and feed our family of 3 on only $300 per month. But it’s also the hardest. Meal planning requires time, effort and commitment. By all means start with my other 5 tips first, but when you need to do some major cutting meal planning is the only way to go. I’ve posted about meal planning before – how to eat what you already have on hand, how to create a themed meal plan & even a free meal planning printable – but part 3 of this series is going to be the full gamut, everything you ever wanted to know about meal planning, so stay tuned next week!

Well, that’s the end of part 2 of our How To Make A Food Budget AND Stick To It mini series. What are your action steps? What will you start doing today to save your family money? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below and don’t forget to come back next week for part 3 – All About Meal Planning. 

Jump to Part 3
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