Grocery Budgeting

As I mentioned in my post about Household Budgeting, I have spent a lot of time working on our grocery budget because I feel that is an area where you can get totally out of control and thrown off track if you’re not diligent about your purchases. I have spent quite a while reading through other blog posts, following discussion threads, searching recipes, couponing, meal planning, and generally obsessing about our grocery budget and I would like to attempt to compile all of the information I have come across into one place.

I found it was really hard to just pull a number out of a hat and double down and never stray from the budget. It took us about two months to settle in to what was a reasonable budget. Our household budgeting technique is a spreadsheet and a receipt envelope, with every receipt from the month shoved into it and tallied up at the end of the month. For groceries, I set a ball-park number and tried to keep our budget at least near that number for two months and then reassess. Our grocery shopping schedule is about two major trips a month, supplementing with perishables as needed (we eat a lot of produce and it often won’t last 14 days). I do quite a lot of meal planning, and try to stock up on grains and proteins when they go on sale (I found whole chickens for $0.98/lb and bought four for the freezer).

After two months of settling into the grocery budget, I pulled all the receipts from both months and tallied up where our money was going to see if we could cut back on anything. Generally speaking, we spent about 50% on produce, 20% on meat, 20% on dairy/eggs, and 10% on snacks/dessert. Seems reasonable. Our meals are usually pretty simple and inexpensive as it is. We eat hot oatmeal for breakfast (super cheap – and a good source of fiber!), pack left over dinner for lunches, and make some combination of meat and vegetables for dinner. We live in a town with two grocery stores (Safeway and Mr. D’s – a Kroger affiliate I believe) and have found that the Safeway rewards program is quite good. I signed up for a Safeway card some time ago and use it every time I shop. They have started a relatively new program called Just For U savings that tracks what you buy regularly and gives you additional discounts when you buy those items. You can use their website to add the savings and coupons to your card so you don’t have to clip or haul around the circular. It also allows you to plan out your shopping list and they have a very handy smartphone app that I use constantly. Some of the savings we get pretty regularly are:

  • $0.99 eggs
  • $2.19 for one gallon of milk
  • $0.89 Cliff Bars
  • $3.00 off a produce purchase of $15.00 or more
  • $0.89 avocados

In addition, they have the Club Card price for most items so I was able to combine that with the offers from Just For U to get a 2 lb block of cheese for $5.50 instead of $9.00. Pretty good if you ask me. I have yet to start adding manufacturer’s coupons to my shopping trips, but I am trying to incorporate that in as well.

I do quite a bit of meal planning – not planning the whole month at once, but making sure I have pantry items stocked (tomato paste, beans, rice, etc.) and an assortment of grains (quinoa, bulgur, millet) to add in to dishes. I try to spread out proteins across several meals since it’s the most expensive ingredient to buy. Here is an example:

I BBQ’d a whole chicken last week and the first night we had chicken and rice. I will usually debone the chicken that night and put it in the fridge, saving the bones and fatty-gristly bits in a plastic bag in the freezer. I’ll use the remainder of the chicken meat in as many dishes as I can think of – a little bit goes a long way. Chicken enchiladas are pretty common in our house, as is chicken in tomato sauce over pasta or veggies; chicken pot pie; chicken, broccoli, and rice casserole. Speaking of poultry, at Thanksgiving we cooked an 18 lb turkey for two of us and froze the meat. We just finished it off at the end of January. I make chicken stock with the bones and giblets I tossed in the freezer and can usually get 4-6 quarts from one chicken carcass (just toss in garlic, onion, celery, carrot, fresh parsley, rosemary, and whole pepper corns; cover with 4-6 quarts of water and simmer for several hours, skimming off any any foam that forms. Strain and freeze for later use). I’ve also been baking our bread – which we don’t eat too much of, so it’s a nice treat. Flour and yeast cost much less than a loaf of bread and it is totally worth it. My trusty stand mixer makes it a breeze, and I can mix up several recipes of dough and toss them in the freezer before rising so that cuts down on time later on.  My friend Erin writes a great blog called The View From Up Here and wrote a really great post about all her freezer meals and prepping she does which you can read here. I really recommend it. She is very organized, unlike myself. Especially since she cooks for four strapping men and I only cook for one strapping man.

I do have a few things I would like to work on after reading the Blissful and Domestic blog post on grocery shopping and storing. I have started freezing some of the milk I buy since we don’t always go through a gallon of milk, but it’s cheaper by the gallon, so why waste it? So, here is a list of things I would like to incorporate:

  • No more canned beans- I plan to buy dry beans more often, cook them up in bulk in the pressure cooker, and freeze them. 
  • Freeze milk/half-and-half, etc. I have heard the consistency is a little different after thawed, but if it’s that bad, I can use it for baking.
  • Prep vegetables and store them, freeze them, etc. – Also in this category, buy heads of lettuce and not boxed, washed lettuce.
  • Buy more bulk grains, flour, etc. The Safeway in my town has a tiny, but nice, bulk food section with quinoa, bulgur, etc. that is much cheaper than the little baggies I find pre-packaged at the health food coop in the city. Plus, its close to home.

So, these are just a few things to get me going. Let me know what works for you, or if you have any input on this subject.