Whether you stick to a tight budget or not, most of us know how easy it is to spend a lot of money on food! Restaurants, fast food, and grocery stores have a way of luring your hard earned dollars and if you aren’t careful, you can find yourself spending much more than you intended.
The most common problem I hear from clients when it comes to budgeting is not being able to stick to the food budget. And I don’t think it is because my clients are eating lobster and filet mignon every evening! It takes some intentionality to live within your food budget.
If you are keen on spending less on food, try some of these ideas:
Separate your grocery budget from your eating out budget. You should have a separate category for "eating out" which includes ANY meal you are not cooking at home (this is the only time you will see McDonald's and Ruth's Chris Steak House in the same category!). Eating out is a much more expensive method of receiving nutritional sustenance, so, even if you are not a great cook, in order to reduce the amount of money you are spending on food, you need to cook at home more than you eat out.
Divide your monthly grocery budget into 4 (or 5 if it’s a five week month). This is the amount you should plan on spending each week. A good way to really stick to this is to use cash. Take your entire grocery budget out in cash at the beginning of the month (or as your pay cycle requires it), and divide it up. When you go to the store, only take the week’s allotment. That way, you can’t overspend!
Plan your menu. I used to hate cooking. I would come home from work, stare in the refrigerator and wonder what I should make for dinner. Then I discovered menu planning. Now I make a dinner menu every week. This has completely taken the mystery out of cooking. And now that my children have learned to read the menu, it has taken the mystery out of “what’s for dinner?” as well!
When making your plan for the week, look at your calendar and plan accordingly. For example, on nights that my daughter has dance class until 6:00, I plan slow-cooker meals that are ready when we get home. I know that Fridays are often the days that I don't feel like cooking, so I plan for something easy or fun, like breakfast for dinner.
Always have a list - and stick to it! I also used to hate grocery shopping. I wandered around the store aimlessly trying to find something to buy. Now that I have a menu, I also have a list of what to buy! I never go to the store without a list. And you shouldn’t either! The grocery store marketers are quite savvy at enticing you to buy the things they want you to buy. You must have your list to defend against the whims of fancy that the grocer would have you throw in your cart. Do not go to the store looking for inspiration. This is the surest way to overspend.
Make grocery shopping a weekly rhythm. Go grocery shopping at the same time, on the same day, every week. I know this sounds a little hardcore, but the habit that I created in going to the same store every Saturday morning at 8:00 has allowed my family and me to fall into a comfortable weekly rhythm.
Go to the same store every week. This is a bigger deal than you might think! By going to the same store, you get to know not only the location of the products (saving you time), but you know how much things cost. I've been going to the same Winco store every week for 4 years and I can come within pennies of my weekly budget without even trying just because I know how much things cost and I buy similar things every week.
These two habits have also caused me to develop other habits like taking my reusable grocery bags every week!
Do not shop between weekly trips. Buy everything you need for the week during the weekly shopping trip. We found that we were nickel-and-diming ourselves when we went to the grocery store 4 or 5 times a week. If there is something that you need to buy fresh later in the week, account for it in your weekly budget allotment.
Avoid stocking up. I know you can get "great deals" at Costco and Sam's Club, but do you really need that much tuna? Avoid buying extra of something just because it is on sale. And if it’s a sale on something you don’t use often (at least twice a week), you don’t need to stock up. I’m not against stocking up. My sister-in-law is the queen of stocking up. They could eat for weeks without ever going to the store! I just think people use sales and stocking up as an excuse to blow their grocery budget. Plan for sales. If you know that chicken is on sale this week, plan to eat a lot of chicken for the next two weeks.
Which brings me to my last point: When you have spent your grocery money for the month, stop spending money and eat what you already have. This may call for some creative meals, but most of us have enough food in our pantry that we can come up with something, be it peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or pancakes. When you’ve spent the money, stop!