Tips for Sticking to a Budget: Getting Grocery Shopping Under Control

published May 15, 2014
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(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

Fair warning: I might just be the worst possible person to write this article. As a passionate foodie and annoying “healthy person”, I spend a good amount of my monthly budget on food. Whether it’s fresh produce or artisanal tofu, grocery shopping is one area where I don’t like to deprive myself.

Having said that, I definitely don’t spend as much as I could, or even as much as I once did on food. Through my time being a self-sufficient adult, I’ve learned a few things that can help keep food spending in check. Read on for my list of tips and tricks, and share your own in the comments below.

Keep a list— and use it. Sure, a lot of us keep a half-hearted grocery list on the fridge door, but how often do we actually look at it in-store? And if the list is forgotten, you can end up wandering around the store trying to recall what was on it, putting ad-hoc items into your basket all the while. My best advice is to keep your list on your smartphone or tablet, and if you have multiple people to shop for — use a list-sharing app!

Shop against the clock. It’s been proven again and again: the more time you spend in a shop, the more money you’ll spend, too. Try timing yourself the next time you go grocery shopping, and aim to shorten your shopping time by 20% thereafter. You’ll find you spend less, and — bonus — you’ll spend less time in the grocery store.

Plan (meals) ahead. I’m a big fan of meal-planning and do it every week before my shop, even if it’s just a loose outline of what I’d like to eat. Purposefully planning meals which use some of the same ingredients cuts down on leftovers and waste.

Shop your cupboards. When you’re really tight on cash, try opening your pantry instead of (or at least before) going to the shops. Sometimes I’ll set myself a cooking challenge — to use the rest of those lentils in the cupboard, or make something with all those frozen peas I seem to collect. Doing this once a week will cut down on buying new food that you don’t necessarily need, and it’s also a great way to rediscover old favorite recipes.

Buy on sale (with caution). Look, 2-for-1 and 20% free offers can be great, but only when you’ll actually use the products. Otherwise, you end up paying more than you need to on food you won’t use. Generally, look for sales on household items like cleaners and toilet paper, as well as non-perishable foodstuffs, and leave the fruit and veg deals, unless you’re sure you’ll use them.

Use your points. Speaking of sales, you know those store cards you have and scan every week? Well, they’re racking up points that will only help you if you use them. I’m the worst for letting cards tick along for months and even years without a second thought, and am usually surprised when I realize that they’re actually, you know, worth something. So next time you’re at the till, ask the cashier how much your points are worth now — you might save a bundle!

Work some “flex spend” into your budget. We all want to try new things, and in the candy land of choice known as the grocery store, this can lead to expensive last-minute choices. In my experience, the best way to combat this is not to fight it. Deciding to allow yourself a little flexibility — say, a five dollar allowance or a single impulse item each week, will help avoid the feeling that you’re depriving yourself, and you’ll be less likely to go overboard.

Do you spend a lot on food? How do you keep yourself in check and on budget?