They say money doesn’t buy you happiness.
Yeah, sure, I guess that’s true.
But more money would definitely reduce my stress when I sit down to pay my bills. And it would mean I could skip some of the boring, tedious or otherwise unappealing freelance writing jobs that keep the bills paid. And that would free up more time for me to work on my own projects (like this blog).
And those things would all make me happier.
No matter where you are financially, cutting your expenses gives you a little more room in your budget. Maybe that means you can freelance a little less and do a little more work on your passion project. Maybe that means you have a little extra money to put toward the materials and supplies you need to start on a goal you’ve set. Or maybe it’ll just take a little stress out of life.
For most people, grocery shopping is not a favorite task. And it’s one where it’s easy to go over budget. Or maybe you don’t even have a grocery budget.
Even when you feel like you’ve cut back on all areas of your budget, you can probably cut a little more at the store. It does take a little work and creativity. But it ends up helping big time in your budget.
Plan Your Meals
Ugh, I know. Who has time for planning meals? Confession time: I’m HORRIBLE at planning meals. I’ll do well for a little while. Then I’ll slack. Then we’re scrounging for leftovers in the fridge or getting to know the pizza delivery lady VERY well… since she’s at our house multiple times a week. I should probably add her to my Christmas shopping list.
And my son plays competitive soccer in the fall and spring (and it also spills over into the winter and summer with all the “optional” camps and leagues, which really aren’t that optional). And so it seems pointless to meal plan when he’s gone three to four nights a week at practice.
But, seriously, planning your meals is probably one of the BEST ways to save money on groceries. If you don’t plan ahead, you’re much more likely to become BFFs with the pizza delivery person or swing through the drive-through on the way home. And even if you DO want to cook at home, you may not have the ingredients you need.
This is what happens when I don’t plan meals ahead of time:
- Hmmm…. what should we have for dinner tonight. Grilled chicken? Sure.
- Wait… I don’t have chicken… or marinade… or veggies… or anything.
- I’ll just run to the store and get them.
- Ohhhhh… look at that good deal on cereal. We already have 5 million open boxes of cereal at home, but it’s such a good deal. I can’t pass it up.
- We could use some deli meat too.
- And fresh fruit it so healthy. Let’s add some of that.
- Wait… I just came here for ingredients for dinner. How is my total $60?!?!?
And then the next day the same scenario plays out again.
When you make multiple trips to the store each week, you’re more likely to add in extras that you don’t really need and wouldn’t buy otherwise. You’re only buying $20 worth of things. What’s an extra $10 on extras? But if you do that several times a week, you end up spending a lot extra.
So just start planning your meals. It’ll be a pain in the beginning. But the good news is you can easily recycle your menus once you create them.
Here’s what I recommend:
- Make a list of all the meals your family likes. You can make one list for main dishes and one list for side dishes if that makes it easier to plan.
- Print a blank monthly calendar.
- Write in meals for each day of the week using the list of meals you created as a guide.
- Reuse that monthly calendar each month.
You can also make it easier by having themed nights. You might have Meatless Monday or Mexican Monday, for example. And, no, you don’t have to use alliteration. Feel free to be a rebel with Grilling Tuesday or Salad Thursday. Doesn’t have the same ring to it, but it does the job. Once you have your theme nights done, plug in recipes in each one.
If you don’t like the idea of using the same menu all the time, sit down each month to create a new one. You already have your list of meals, so it’s just a matter of plugging them into the menu in a different way. If you like to try new recipes, Pinterest is a great option. Create a board for the recipes you want to try. When you make your monthly calendar, browse that board to choose your meals.
Once you have your menu created, write a list of all the ingredients you need. If you’re planning for the whole month, you can shop for all the staples one time. Then just go to the store for perishables throughout the month. Fewer trips to the grocery store = fewer extras that you don’t really need.
Use a Meal Planning Service
Not up for the whole menu planning thing yourself? Try a menu planning service. We tried $5 Meal Plan and it’s really a convenient program. Each week you get a new menu with some really creative recipes. But the best part? The printable recipe bundle for the week also comes with a shopping list. What? That’s right. No more looking through the recipe (or thinking through the recipe if you know it by heart) to figure out what ingredients you need. Just print the plan for the week, mark which groceries you need on the list (since you may already have some items in your pantry), and head to the store. Life saver!
But what if you have a picky family who won’t eat just anything? (I feel ya, Sister! I would challenge anyone for the title of World’s Pickiest Family.) $5 Meal Plan has you covered. You can actually create a custom menu using all of the archived menus. Add the recipes you want to your weekly menu, and it creates a printable with the recipes and shopping list. It’s actually really cool.
And you can get a free trial. So you’re not out anything if you decide it’s not right for your family. Ultimately, we decided even at just $5 a month it wasn’t for us since my family is so picky. But if you have a family that likes to try new recipes, you may appreciate the printable menus and shopping lists.
Shop Around the Ads
A common suggestion is to plan your menus around the grocery ads for the week. This is a smart strategy when you’re trying to save money. But sometimes you don’t want to wait until the new ad comes out to plan the next week’s meals.
You can still take advantage of the deals in the ad by stocking up on items that are priced low for the week. Say there’s a super duper special on boneless skinless chicken breast this week. Like the best price you’ve ever seen. Stock up now. You can easily pop the chicken in the freezer. Then you have it on hand whenever you have a chicken dish on your upcoming menu.
Meat is easy to stockpile since it freezes well. You should also stock up on non-perishable stables that last a while. Having an idea of the normal price and the lowest price you’ve seen on the groceries you buy all the time makes it easier to know when you should fill the cart.
Mix in Cheaper Meals
Not all meals add up to the same amount when it comes to buying ingredients. Some up with some cheap staple meals that keep your weekly budget low. I try to mix in a few cheap/not very fancy/meatless meals throughout the week to balance it out. One night we might do grilled chicken, grilled asparagus, corn on the cob, etc. And the next we’ll do grilled cheese and tomato soup.
So come up with some of those cheap meals that your family likes, and mix them in to save money. Breakfast for dinner is a favorite in our house, and many breakfast foods are pretty cheap (oatmeal, eggs, etc). Make a crustless quiche using the veggies that are about to go bad, or whip up a big batch of oatmeal with a topping bar so everyone can customize their oats.
It doesn’t have to be breakfast. Lots of meals are relatively inexpensive and still tasty. Here are some of our go-to cheap meals:
- Baked potatoes and side salads
- Pasta (or zucchini noodles/broccoli slaw/etc. for a healthier version)
- Scrambled eggs
- Grilled cheese and tomato soup
- YOYO (You’re On Your Own — as in everyone scrounge and find whatever you can cuz mama ain’t cookin’)
Another cheap option is to use leftovers. I intentionally cook extra chicken when we grill so I can use it for dinner the next night or for my lunches. If we have grilled chicken one night, we might use the leftovers in salads the next night. If you make a killer meatloaf, make a little extra and have meatloaf sandwiches the next night. You’re already making the meal anyway. It’s usually not much more to increase the amount you make, but it turns into two meals to save you money.
Take Advantage of Store Discount Programs
Does your local grocery store have some sort of club or discount program or card? Join it! Seriously, you can get some good savings by taking part in the store-specific programs. Grocery stores are usually regional, so the programs may vary depending on where you live.
One of our regional grocery stores offers a gas savings program. Each week, certain groceries have a discount associated with them. You might save 2 cents per gallon for buying a box of cereal, for example. It doesn’t sound like much, but it can add up quickly. You can then redeem the discounts at certain local gas stations on up to 20 gallons of fuel.
Sometimes the card earns you extra discounts on grocery items. For example, waffles that cost $2.99 might be available to card members for only $1.99.
One of my favorite store-specific savings programs is Target’s Cartwheel app. If you shop at Target at all (and who doesn’t?), you NEED this app. To date, I’ve saved $932 with the app. Plus, I have the Target Red debit card, so I save 5% on every purchase. And it comes out of my regular bank account.
The deals on Cartwheel change all the time. You can scan barcodes while you’re shopping to see if there’s a Cartwheel offer for the things you’re buying anyway. There’s usually at least a few items for 40% or 50% off. You’ll usually have several hundred offers available at a time. Some days I seem to find lots of deals on the things I’m already buying. Other times I find just one or two small discounts. But it all adds up over time.
The thing to remember with these in-store programs is to only use them for things you’ll actually use. Sure, you might get a really great discount on that jumbo can of ground coffee. But if you never drink coffee, you’re not really saving money. So don’t buy things just because you can get a special price or a discount on fuel or a rebate or whatever the deal may be.
Another way to get cash back on things you’re buying anyway is by using the Ibotta app. I just signed up, so I’m not an Ibotta pro, but I’m excited for the potential savings. It looks like you choose from lots of available deals. Once you purchase the item, you take a picture of your receipt and the amount of the deal gets deposited into your Ibotta account. With some retailers, you can connect your loyalty card and automatically receive credit for the deals you purchase, as long as you add the deals before you shop.
Once you reach the $20 threshold, you can use the money to purchase a gift card, or you can get the money in your PayPal or Venmo account.
You can also get bonuses. I can get an extra $10 if I save at least $10 in the first month. There’s also a bonus for mobile purchases.
Seek Out Discounted Grocery Items
I LOVE a good bargain. That’s probably a big part of my love affair with Target. You can find the best clearance deals there. Tell me I’m not the only one who feels like I won the lottery when I snag a good clearance find. Shopping Target clearance is the best!
But if you’re only looking for clearance or discounted items in the clothing, home goods and other sections of the store, you’re really missing out. You can find some great discounted grocery deals at many stores. And it can really save on your grocery budget.
A lot of times, the discounted items you’ll find at the grocery store are things that are nearing their expiration date. Walmart always marks down fresh meat when it’s near the expiration date, for example. Since meat freezes well, you can grab the discounted meats you find, toss them in the freezer, and use them for a meal down the road.
If it’s something that doesn’t freeze well like a salad mix, only buy what you can actually eat before it goes bad. You may get a really super duper good deal on it, but you’re still wasting money if it spoils before you eat it.
Target usually has some good discounted options, too. You’ll often find special coupon stickers on fresh produce, bakery goods and meat when they’re nearing the expiration date. Just make sure the cashier (or you if you do self-checkout) scans the coupon or you’ll pay full price for something that’s about to expire!
Our Target also usually has clearance grocery items near the ends of the aisles. Sometimes they’re actually on the end cap. Other times they’re in the aisle but right at the end.
Another recent Target grocery discount I’ve found is in the deli area. Our Target has the option to get deli meats and cheeses sliced for you. But I’ve recently noticed a small basket in the cooler section right next to the deli counter where there are some already sliced meats and cheese. They’re usually about half a pound and they’re much cheaper per pound than if you go up to the deli counter for the exact same stuff. Of course, the selection is a lot slimmer. I just bought some amazing Applegate white cheddar for $4 per pound. Totally worth looking there to see if you find anything your family might like.
Pay With Cash
I never have cash. Like never. I’m not the only one, right? When we go to a little mom and pop restaurant I always panic a little bit. What if they don’t take cards? These days, who doesn’t, right? But I have been to a little dive bar known for its burgers recently that does not accept anything except cash. So those places do exist!
My point is, most of us don’t carry cash anymore. But paying in cash can be an effective way to keep your grocery spending under control. I used to do this when money was especially tight. I wanted to be sure I stuck to the grocery budget, so I would withdraw cash every Friday when my husband got paid. He got his “allowance” for lunches and things during the week. And I got my grocery money.
If the money is coming out of the same account whether you pay with cash or a debit card, what’s the difference?
It’s more of a mental game than anything. First of all, it’s a lot easier to go over budget when you’re paying with a card. Half the time I don’t even pay attention to how much I’m spending. It’s like a Price Is Right game at the checkout. What’s the total going to be? Who knows? Except the only prize for this game is a lower bank account balance, blown budget and groceries that won’t put themselves away.
Seriously though, when you’re paying with a card, you may not think about how much you’re spending. With cash, you have a fixed amount on hand. You have to stay within that budget (or be forced to pull out the card anyway).
For me, it also became a challenge. How much of the money could I walk out of the store with? It encouraged me to spend less to try to have money left over afterward.
Order Groceries Online
Who loves going to the grocery store? Not me! Especially when it’s busy. No thanks.
The solution? Shopping for groceries online. It saves so much time. And it helps you stay on budget.
How? Think about your usual trip to the grocery store. Maybe you have a list. Maybe you don’t. (Why don’t you?!?!) But even if you do have a list, you probably add a few extras into the cart (especially if your kids or spouse are with you!). After all, it’s just a $5 bottle of wine. But those extras add up quickly.
Sometimes I keep a rough mental tally going as I add things to the cart, but it’s usually a surprise when I get to the checkout. That’s not the case when you’re shopping online. You can see the exact total as you add things to your cart. You also see just how much those extras increase your total. I usually end up removing some things when I see the total climb because I know we don’t really need them. Plus, you’re searching for specific things on your list, so you’re less likely to get distracted by the eye-catching displays they put up in the store.
Lots of regional grocery stores offer online ordering with options to either pick up the groceries at the store or have them delivered. They sometimes charge a small fee unless you meet a minimum purchase amount.
An option that’s available across the country is the Walmart Grocery service. I’ve used it several times, and it’s really convenient. You order online, drive up to the designated spot and wait for someone to bring out your groceries AND load them into your car for you. You choose an available 1-hour pickup window, so you get a little flexibility in picking up. It’s free if you make a minimum $30 purchase (and have you ever made it out of any store on a grocery shopping trip for less than that????).
Adding things to your cart is easy. You can browse for things by category or search for specific things you want. The only thing I don’t buy through this service is produce. Maybe I’m snobby, but I like to pick out my own produce. Otherwise, I’m afraid I’ll end up with bruised apples and rock-hard avocado. Once you start ordering, you’ll notice a section showing things you’ve purchased in the past. It’s an easy way to add the things you use on a regular basis. Plus, you get $10 off your first order with Walmart Grocery. Boom! Instant savings!
I’m also intrigued by Target’s new Drive Up service. Our local Target just added the spots, but I haven’t had the chance to use it yet. While I do love wandering the aisles of Target to find all the hidden bargains, it would be a money-saver (and a sanity saver while the kids are home on summer break) to be able to drive up for my groceries. I’ll keep you updated if I try it!
Use What’s in Your Pantry
Some weeks are tighter than others. Or maybe you have some big financial goals and want to tighten the budget even more than normal. Maybe it’s just me, but I always feel so restricted when I tighten the grocery budget.
But instead of feeling deprived, use it as a challenge. Dig deep into your pantry, fridge and freezer to see what you’ve been ignoring. Now get creative with what you find. Make a soup from the frozen veggies, leftover chicken and pasta you find around the house, for example.
Or maybe you put out a bunch of random things and have a buffet at home. I used to do this all the time when my kids were little. They loved going through the “buffet” and filling their own plates. And you get to clean out the fridge and pantry. Plus, you cut down on wasted food.
What is your weekly grocery budget? How do you make it stretch? What are your favorite ways to save money on groceries?