Q&A: How do I stock our pantry on a limited grocery budget?

I’ve been reading your blog for years, and now have moved out of the college dorm phase into newly-married life. Now that I am actually responsible for a household, I’ve been following your blog more closely.

We are trying to come up with a workable grocery budget, but I’m having a hard time doing that and stocking my pantry at the same time. Most of the menu planning and money-saving tips include “shop your pantry” or “make do with what you already have,” but I find myself going to the store every few days because I don’t have basic staples.

Do you have any suggestions for me and for others who are just starting out? -Emily

Congratulations on your recent marriage, Emily! And I love your desire to wisely steward the money and resources you have. Way to go!

1. Set Aside A Small Portion of Your Grocery Budget for Stocking Up

If at all possible, set aside at least $3 to $5 each week from your grocery budget to invest in buying ahead. This will be things that are at rock bottom prices and that you’ll be storing in your pantry or freezer to use later.

Typically, since you’ll be pennies on the dollar to stock up on these items, $3 to $5 will stretch pretty far. If you don’t see any really amazing deals, just “roll” your stock-up money to the following week. If I know I’m going to be investing in a larger bulk purchase, I’ll often hold off on using my stock-up money for a month or so and just let it build up so that it can cover that larger purchase.

Tip: For those of you who are new here, you can view my Stock-Up Price List here to get an idea of what prices I aim to pay. You can also download the customizable Stock-Up Price List to track the sales and deals in your area.

2. Focus on Stocking Up on the Best Deals

Set a price-point for what you’ll pay for buying ahead. Maybe say that you won’t stock up on something unless it’s something you know you’ll use in the next 1-2 months and it’s $0.25 or less.

Creating boundaries for what you can buy with your stock-up money will help you to prioritize and not get sidetracked or sucked into buying things you don’t really need. It will also help you to maximize the mileage of your grocery money.

3. Make Some Short-Term Sacrifices To Free Up Money to Invest in Stocking Your Pantry

When you’re first getting started with buying ahead, you might feel like you don’t even have enough wiggle room to devote $3 to $5 to stocking up. In that case, I recommend talking with your husband about some short-term sacrifices you could make to free up money for stocking up.

For instance, maybe you decide that you’ll have two meatless meals each week for two months, or eat oatmeal for breakfast five days per week, or give up buying a certain treat that you love for 4 weeks.

The beauty of practicing the buy ahead principle is that the more you’re able to buy your groceries for pennies on the dollar, the farther your grocery money will stretch. Making short-term sacrifices can help you build your stockpile faster, thus freeing up money to then be able to afford the occasional treat or to invest in higher quality foods.

Tip: Check out my post on How to Survive on a $30 Weekly Grocery Budget. Also, be sure to see my sample $25 Menu and Grocery List.

4. Realize That It Takes Time to Stock a Pantry

You’re not going to stock your pantry overnight — unless you spend an arm and a leg to do so! However, if you consistently purchase 3-10 items each week at rock bottom prices to add to your stockpile, over time, you’ll really start to see a difference in your grocery budget.

Plus, it’s so nice to not have to worry about running to the store when you run out of toothpaste or shampoo. Instead, you can just get a new tube or bottle out of your stockpile closet — and be thankful that you purchased it when it was free or almost-free!

What tips and suggestions do the rest of you have for Emily?

photo courtesy of Big Stock

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Comments

  1. says

    Along the lines of making short term sacrifices, you can have a week of super cheap meals in order to make room in the budget. Examples are scrambled eggs and toast, cheese quesadillas, beans and rice, canned soup and grilled cheese, boxed macaroni and cheese with frozen veggies on the side, etc..

    Eating these cheaper meals can keep your grocery budget lower for the week to give you some extra money to stock up on a super sale item.

  2. Britney says

    I started couponing/working on our stockpile about 15 months ago – and Crystal is right, it takes time to stock up for sure. We recently converted a coat closet into a pantry since my stockpile was outgrowing my cupboards and now I can thankfully look in there and our chest freezer (free on craigslist) and put together many meals without going to the store. If you do what Crystal suggested, you will eventually get to the point where you only have to buy perishables each week along with any really great deals on stock-up items that you are getting low on. I would say it took 9-12 months for us to really get to this point.

  3. says

    It takes time to stock a pantry. I would say that it realistically takes a year.

    The next two months are a great time to stock the pantry with supplies on basic needs like flour, sugar, and other baking supplies. Consider buying butter on sale and freezing it, as well as hams, turkeys, and pork roasts.

    I find it saves me money and helps me to stock my pantry by buying in bulk. One month, buy a 25 pound bag of pinto beans. The next month, buy a 25 pound bag of rice. Then get a 25 pound bag of oats (I currently pay $15.35 for 25 pounds of oats, so it saves me money and builds my pantry at the same time).

    • says

      This. I buy a lot of baking supplies this time of year. I always have at least 2-3 lbs. of butter in my freezer. By January, I’ll have way more than that because of sales this time of year. They next sale on baking goods won’t be until Easter. And those are never quite as good as this time of year.

      One thing that I do is that if my husband gets a big paycheck (one income family), a large portion goes to stockpiling. If he makes bonus or gets a grocery gift card as a company Christmas gift, it goes towards stocking up.

  4. says

    We are retired and try to stay on as low a budget as possible. We coupon but we also go to the box stores where groceries are marked way down. We also try to go to the grocery store on the day that the meat is marked down and stock up. Then we use what we have already to prepare meals.

  5. Jessica says

    My biggest tip is to make a list of your fav meals and go to recipes and list out what list out what ingredients are needed. Keep this list handy each time the sales flyers come in. Is there anything on the list you can pick up? Doing this keeps you from buying ingredients you won’t ever use. Also, I have personally found there is often a common ingredients in the recipes I love. (Garlic, chicken, EVOO, salsa or bbq sauce). Having ingredients on hand you know you like will help you cook something from either you go to list or a successful new meal.

    I also second trying to buy in bulk.

  6. ashley says

    Don’t know how long you’ve been married, but consider setting any extra gift cards or money gifts that come your way (wedding gifts, rebates, etc) aside as stock-up money, and play a game with yourself to see how long you can make it last or how far you can make it stretch so you’re focusing on getting the best deal.
    Also, if anyone wants to host a shower or something for you, you could always suggest a “pounding”, or “pound party”, where guests bring something that weighs a pound (meat, flour, sugar, butter, etc). It’s a nice way to set up housekeeping, stock the pantry, and it doesn’t have to be expensive for the guests. Actually, I’m thinking this would be a good idea for a lot of people….maybe to welcome a new preacher or to help a friend that’s having a hard time…might have to think on this some more as the holidays approach!

    • Michelle says

      I totally agree with the suggestions to buy your baking supplies/spices in bulk. A great place to do that quickly and without needing coupons is Sam’s Club or Costco if you have one in your area. I have couponed heavily for almost 4 years and have found that even after coupons it is rare to get as good of a price on many baking supplies/spices at the regular grocery store in comparison to shopping at a club warehouse. (Some examples, flour, yeast, sugar, salt, baking soda/powder, bouillon cubes, any spices/seasonings, rice, beans, even canned goods like diced tomatoes [but you have to buy them in the HUGE cans, then split and freeze). Occasionally I’ll find something for a great deal at a regular grocery store, but either it sells out of the store so quickly, or I didn’t have enough coupons to really get stocked up on that product. This time of year is often when clubs have guest passes for a day, so if you plan well, you can go in and get what you need at one time without having to get a membership.

      • Kelly A. says

        I totally agree with the baking supplies at Sam’s or Costco – usually cheaper there throughout the year. You probably will find cheaper prices on baking items elsewhere this time of year, though. Do you have a grocery store with a bulk foods section where you can fill up the bag on your own? We have Winco here in CA. These are great for spices – around a 75-90 percent savings most of the time than buying your spices on the small jars. Also, baking supplies can be pretty cheap here too. God Bless!!

  7. says

    I agree with Crystal on taking your time to stock up that pantry. I also make a list of items with my stock up price point, that I use often in popular recipes or just daily needs so that I am focused on the items that I really need to be stocking up on. Being intentional often helps me stay focused. One more tip I have been doing price matching at Walmart so I don’t have to run around to different stores and decreases my gas budget as well. Congrats our making wise choices early on in your marriage with finances.

  8. Katie says

    This is a great time to begin stockpiling staples. If you have a Kroger family store near you, they are running a $5 off 10 items event for the foreseeable future. If you coupon for some of the items, you can get many for very good prices. I bought 10 pounds of pasta for less than $5 today. I also stock up on flour, sugar, evaporated milk, condensed milk, baking chips, etc. this time of year and there are a lot of coupons available in the paper and online for all of these. Also, canned tomatoes, canned vegetables and fruits and broth/soups are all on great sales currently (and again, if you can pair a coupon, you can get some for free).

    Many store brands are just as good (and sometimes better) than national brands – you can often find them for a much better price if you don’t wish to coupon. We put $30 a month into a “stock-up” envelope. Some weeks I roll it over (actually, almost all of Sept and Oct rolled over), because there just isn’t anything we need. Other weeks, we cut back on other things (meat, cheese) in order to purchase items that are priced really well that we will need later.

    It took me a year to get our pantry in place (and our freezer); it takes 1-2 hours a month now for me to inventory and take stock of what we have and what’s needed. Good luck!

    • Jodi says

      I was also going to suggest store brands.This past week, I bought Shoprite’s hot cocoa mix instead of the Nestle brand. It cost less and the box had twice as many packets! And the best part is that my son loved it! I have always had good luck with Stop & Shop brands, too. And I think the stores have a money back guarrantee on their brands–so bring it back if you aren’t satisfied.

  9. says

    Yes now is a great time to be stocking up on pantry items. Things like butter, flour, most baking items. In the summer condiments go on sale for holidays like the 4th of July. We’re buying and freezing butter right now. Check your weekly circulars. It helps to kind of make a list of what to keep an eye out for.

  10. says

    I’m agreeing with Brandy. The next 2 months are a great time to stock up on many items.

    Last week, I bought 30 lbs of pasta for about $13. It ran on sale at Kroger at .49 per lb and I had a couple of coupons for $1 off 2! (Too sweet!)

    Broths, cream of…soups, turkey, dressings, canned veggies, baking supplies including cake mixes, chocolate chips, flours, sugars, butter, and more will be on sale this month and next.

    The early spring is a good time for some canned and frozen veggie sales too. I suppose they get rid of the old to make way for the new.

    Easter is a good time for some sales.

    Also, after the Holidays!
    All the Christmas “colored” items will go for about 30 to 50% off the day after Christmas and go on down to 75% off. I often buy sprinkles and things like that for the next years cakes and cookies a year in advance.

    In between those times, skip out on “packaged” rices and mixes, and things like that. Instead of 4 boxes of Rice-A-Roni, buy 10 lbs of rice at Sam’s or Cosco’s and build up your spices and seasonings.

    Think “quantity” when you shop. Such as, you can buy a small jar of oregano for about $3 to $4 but you can buy an extra large container for $7 to $8!

    Blessings!

  11. Jen S. says

    At home mom of three living on one income with lots of bills. I’ve honestly tried to go the whole foods, natural way for our Autistic son but we end up in the red every time. However I did learn much about making as much from scratch and when out of money, shopping discount stores. This time of year you will find baking basics at the best prices like flour, etc. Stock up on those. The power outages taught me going all fresh isn’t in our best interest right now. So I went to the discount store, Bottom Dollar also many others like Sharp Shopper, etc out there. But not all is best to buy there. Watch for those ads and make sure to take time to comparison shop with Walmart, etc. Look for easy recipes for homemade meals that will save you by freezing leftovers for another meal or your lunches. Whole chicken quarters for $.50 lb will go far by crockpot then shred for casseroles, mexican meals and soups. Look at the ads and plan meals ahead of shopping so you don’t buy more than you need for the week. And check out discounted items at stores then freeze them for future use.

  12. Meredith says

    I am going to agree with a couple of other people here and simplify your meals. Think outside of the box when you don’t have enough for recipes. For example, I am making homemade blueberry pancakes and hashbrowns for dinner. It sounds simple but you may be lacking a few staples and it’s frustrating. You may go for scrambled eggs with roasted potatoes instead. It will take time to build up your stockpile. I remember my oatmeal hating husband (I love it) ate it for weeks until the cold cereal deals came around. Then I started stocking because I had the money. He hasn’t had oatmeal in years!

    Another tip is to watch on what you stock up on. Coupons for freebies are always a given. However, don’t buy 10 jars of relish even if they are a five cents each. Or if you have a coupon that makes toothpaste 25 cents and you have three tubes at home already. You may see tons of bloggers with all of this food but when you are starting out…keep it simple.

  13. Sarah says

    It’s hard to tell someone what to stock up on because different families have different preferences. I cook from scratch a lot so if that appeals to you, I’d suggest stocking up on flours, sugar (brown and white), baking soda, baking powder, butter or margarine, salt, yeast, oats, beans, rice, and some sort of meat ( turkeys for this time of year). These items are already cheap and you can purchase them in large quantities at a club store. From them you can make all sorts of things. Hope that helps!

    • says

      It’s the same thing. My list and the customizable list are all part of the download. Let me know if my list isn’t showing up for you for some reason.

  14. Sandy says

    I try to prepare meals with foods that are in season. Usually, you find those foods on sale or relatively inexpensive. I like to frequent sites like Cookinglight.com for they have an option you can select which will provide you with all sorts of recipes based on foods in season. With the savings I get doing so I then choose item(s) that I use a great deal, or at this time of year, I start purchasing baking items. Doing this allows me to stick to a set budget plus, I don’t prepare the same old, same old.

  15. says

    It helps to learn when things go on sale. Thanksgiving/Christmas is when the baking staples go on sale, so stock up when you have the money on flour, sugar, etc. Spices are cheaper in bulk, if you have a place for getting them that way. Turkeys for the freezer go on sale now, too. If you don’t have room for a whole turkey in the freezer, then buy one or two, cook them, then debone the bird and freeze the cooked turkey in ziploc bags.

    Christmas/Easter: ham goes on sale.

    Holidays/events like Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Superbowl Sunday are when things like mustard, mayo, sausage, beef, soft drinks, etc. go on sale. (Think cookout staples.)

    When you know the sale cycles, it helps save money.

    Also, look at your regular meals and figure out which ingredients you use the most. Buy those when you can to have on hand. Some things, like beans or diced tomatoes, are usually found inexpensively year round, so you can easily stock up on things of that nature just when you have a little extra in the budget.

    • Andrea says

      I very much agree with your last paragraph, Annie Marie.

      If there are things that you are going to be using consistently, like olive oil, flour, diced tomatoes, ground pepper, garlic, etc, buy plenty of those even if they aren’t at rock-bottom prices. Do shop around though–if you have an Aldi or other chain where prices are consistently lower, shopping there for the basics will save money over the stores that have six-week sales cycles (such as Albertsons). Building your pantry at regular price is still much cheaper than eating out if you’re covering the basics!

  16. Katherine says

    I wish that someone had given me a list of items one needs in a pantry! I knew the basics – flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, pepper, oil, vinegar. But I always forgot to think of other items like rice, canned tomatoes, canned beans, broth, etc. The first few weeks in our apartment, my husband and I ate mostly pre-made, frozen meals and canned soup while we focused on getting the place in order and creating a pantry. After those first few weeks, I decided to look up recipes for meals and sides that I knew I would make on a regular basis. I based my pantry shopping on the seasonings and other items used in these recipes, and figured I would just add to it when needed. Now I have a very well-stocked pantry and can create multiple dishes without having to run to the store.

    But you don’t have to buy the ingredients all at once. I spent a few minutes in the store and looked up all the prices (both sale and non-sale) just to get a base price to work from. When I found a deal that was 50% or more off from the normal price, I would buy the item if my budget allowed.

  17. says

    Hi Emily! Congrats!!! Gotta say I agree here with Crystal and the others that it takes time to stock up a pantry and that Nov-Dec is a wonderful time to stock up on baking goods/spices.

    Another note on sacrificing–Why not try making your own cleaning products? There’s $10 saved! I also eat a lot veggie meals. For ex, you can have black bean soup w/ roasted sweet potatoes.

    Scrambled eggs breakfast burritos or yogurt with granola w/ vanilla yogurt and chopped apple are 2 cheap breakfasts you can try.

    Veggie Recipes Sources:
    Moosewood and Mollie Katzen cookbooks
    All Recipes.com
    Irv and Shelley’s Fresh Picks Blog (http://www.freshpicks.com/blog/)

    Here are a few more ideas that have worked for me:

    Eat Whole Foods and Buy in Season
    …Whole foods are unprocessed/minimally foods (produce, beans, meat, milk, whole grain flour, cooking oil, etc) Cooking with whole foods is healthier, tastes great and saves money since you’re not paying for all the extra preservatives, sugar, salt and packaging that goes into processed food.

    I buy a lot of fruits/veggies in season since that’s when they’re at their best/cheapest. For ex, sweet potatoes, apples, grapes, citrus, root veg, etc. for November and December.

    Learn the Sales Cycle
    …Grocery stores have a 12-week sales cycle. If you study the sales flier,s this is why you might notice why certain items are on sale at certain times. Stock up then!!!

    Develop a stash of “go-to” meals

    Make/Use a master grocery list
    …Make a master list with check boxes on it on the main pantry stockpiles/grocery items you like to have on hand. Check off when you need something, write down how much you need, and take the list to the store.
    You’ll know what to write on it as you note your buying patterns over the months.

    If possible, do double coupon days/use coupons AND Do “drugstore shopping”
    …double coupons will save you even more $$ and drugstores like CVS and Walgreens have special buyer points programs, where you earn points for certain purchases. These points can be applied towards toothpaste, cleaning stuff, etc.

    • WilliamB says

      I make window cleaner (amonia and water), laundry detergent (bar of soap, borax, washing soda), and produce wash (distilled vinegar, water). Each saves me at least 90% of the commercial price.

  18. Ruth says

    My advice would be to simplify your recipes or go to a recipe site like, allrecipes.com and do a recipe search using the ingredients that you have on hand. I am not sure what basic staples you are going to the store for, but some ingredients in recipes you can do without or use a substitute.

  19. WilliamB says

    Two thoughts:
    1) If you don’t already know, take some time (1-2 months?) to learn prices in your area. Then you’ll know what a good price is.

    2) Don’t buy more than you can store.

    Good luck, it’s lovely to see someone thinking ahead from the beginning.

  20. Gabby says

    don’t over look your small local stores or GFS if you have them in your area.

    One of our local stores regularly puts boneless, skinless chicken breast on sale for 1.49/lb or LESS (1.29 is the cheapest I’ve ever seen it but have gotten b/s thighs for .99/lb). You need to buy 40 lbs of it but I split a box with my daughter. That’s 4 people total and generally it lasts me 4-6 months. They also have sales on ground chuck for 1.99/lb with minimum 10 lb purchase. I generally get 10 lbs at a time, cook some with onions for sloppy joes, tacos, or quick chili and make some into meat loaf, salisbury steak patties or patties for a parmesan meat casserole I make. We rarely eat burgers at home so most is cooked before it’s frozen.

    GFS is primarily a food service store but anyone can shop there. We get many coupons in the paper for $5 off $50 so that makes some of their sales better. They also have good sales on 10 lbs of ground chuck and boneless skinless chicken breast, often in 10 lb packages. They also have good prices on frozen veggies and frozen fruit too.

    And, as always, try Aldi and Save-a Lot. They are my ‘basics’ store but I will stock/buy at other stores when there is a sale and coupons!

  21. says

    Great question. I think even the term “stocking up” means different things for different people. In my mind, that means have food beyond the basics that you use to cook with – like having 2 or 3 bags of flour in the pantry beyond the one that you’re currently using. Anyway, I just wanted to say that even though you read about stocking up on a lot of blogs, there’s really nothing wrong with not even trying to stock up if that works for you. I personally used to stock up a lot, but I’ve stopped stocking up very much in the past year or two, and I actually like not stocking up much better! I have an Aldi less than a mile from my home. I do the vast majority of my shopping there, and I get low prices without ever needing to worry about coupons or sales. I have not needed to increase my grocery budget since I stopped stocking up so much. Another advantage of not stocking up as much is that I don’t have to worry as much about finding storage space for all that food, bugs/mice/critters getting into it, it going bad, or losing it because I can’t remember what I have. It’s a way of simplifying for me. Also, I have less of a temptation to bake (unhealthy treats) if the supplies aren’t on hand. Everyone is a different situation and it just takes a while to find what really works for you.

  22. Amanda says

    These are all great suggestions. I would also add that it saves to keep your kitchen and pantry organized. This helps you avoid buying duplicates or using a more expensive substitute because you thought you were out of the original item. Secondly, if you can’t afford to buy spices in bulk to start with, you can usually find many of them a lot cheaper in the aisle near the Mexican food items. They are in hanging bags.

    • Meg says

      Keep your ears open to finding new and non traditional food sources. For example, I usually find pinto beans to be much cheaper year round at a hispanic market than on sale at a grocery chain. I find the same to be true for types of rice, spices and vinegars from an asian market.

      I have also asked family restaurants with some success if I could order bulk goods through them (usually after finding a contact who works with the restaurant). Usually they would come in large quantities but the prices can’t be beat.

      Ham it up with the butcher department at your grocery store. They appreciate the recognition and will not only tell you tons about their product but will also know when meats go on clearance. If you maintain a friendly rapport they may even “hide” you some choice clearance selections in back.

  23. says

    Thanks Crystal for the customizable price list.I have kept mine in a notebook for years but this will make it so easy to change when prices change. Your prices are so much lower than our state.

    I am curious though. How do you get mayonaise at $1.00 for 30 oz.? Is it a particular brand? Is it at Aldi’s?

    • says

      That’s on sale with a coupon — and it only happens every once in a blue moon.

      Most all of these prices are the rock-bottom prices, meaning they are the very best sales matched with coupons. Keep your eyes peeled and you can probably find similar prices at your stores every once in a while, too, by pairing a great sale with a great coupon! When you find it, stock up!

  24. says

    Find out when your favorite store puts out their marked-down meat. We shop this bin weekly, and never pay full price for any kind of meat. It’s usually 50% off, or more. Just be sure to use it soon, or freeze it.