Q&A: Help! How do we stop spending more than $1,000 per month on groceries?

Carrie contacted me through the Money Saving Mom® Facebook Page with the following question:

HELP!! I’m failing my family at staying within our grocery budget. I know all the things I’m “supposed” to be doing, and I’m just not approaching it in a logical, orderly enough way to accomplish these things.

Will you help me by reviewing the “basics” – reminding me of what I should be doing, and perhaps showing me some things I’m missing?

I know I should clip coupons more. I forget.
I know I should buy sales more. I forget.
I know I should stay away from brand names. I’m picky.
I know I shouldn’t buy “extras.” I’m lazy.
I’ve tried carrying a calculator with me through the store. I get overwhelmed.

I *do* make a menu.
I *do* make a list from the menu.
I *do* look at what we already have in the house so as not to duplicate.
I *do* shop Costco to save on bulk items.
I have downloaded the Safeway app to receive extra savings.

But I invariably go over budget on groceries every month. We are a family of 5 (one child being an infant) and we budget $700/month ($350/paycheck) for groceries, yet I usually end up spending closer to $1,000.

This is ridiculous! I’m better than this! I shouldn’t be having this problem. What are some practical steps I can be doing to help get on top of this and be proactive from the front end so I’m not squeezing to make ends meet every two weeks?? -Carrie

First off, Carrie, please don’t beat yourself up, okay? Do you know how many people have never even considered having a grocery budget or menu-planning? You’re already doing a lot, so cut yourself some slack and be encouraged that you are doing some things. And doing something is always better than doing nothing.

After reading your email a few times and contemplating it, here are my thoughts on some action steps you could take to start finding success in lowering your grocery budget:

1. Stop Telling Yourself You Can’t

As I encouraged people to do in 21 Days to a More Disciplined Life, you’ve got to remove the word “can’t” from your vocabulary. If you tell yourself that you can’t, than you will believe that you can’t. When you believe that you can’t, then you invariably won’t.

It’s totally okay to deliberately decide, “I am not going to focus on lowering my grocery bill because I need to focus my energies on X.” Or to purposefully commit to keeping your grocery bill as is (or even raising it) because you want to support local farms or buy fair trade products or you are choosing to eat all organic as a family.

None of these things involve “can’t”, they involve choice. There’s a big difference there.

2. Aim to Lower Your Grocery Bill By 1-3% Every Month

Instead of trying to overhaul your grocery bill overnight, set a goal to lower your grocery bill by 1-3% every month. While this might not seem like this will make much of an impact, over time, your savings will really start to add up. And, by doing it gradually, it will seem a lot less overwhelming and doable.

3. Analyze What You’re Spending that $1,000 Per Month On

Gather up your receipts from the past few shopping trips, if you have them, and take a good look at where that $1,000 is going. What are the areas where you’re spending the most? Right off the bat, you might realize you’re spending an exorbitant amount on meat or diapers or produce.

Whichever area is the biggest spending culprit is the area I recommend that you focus your energies on lowering.

4. Pick One Money-Saving Technique to Focus on Per Month

Rather than trying to work on a bunch of different areas of your grocery budget, just focus on one specific and realistic money-saving technique per month. Use the analysis you did in step #3 to decide which area to focus on first.

For instance, maybe you are spending a lot on produce. For the next month, plan your meals around the few different fruits and vegetables that are in season and on sale that month. Focus on this money-saving technique only for a month.

Don’t worry about that long list of other ideas you come up with when you’re reading frugal blogs. You can add those things to an ongoing list of money-saving ideas you want to implement, but only worry about adding one new thing each month.

The next month, if you’re feeling comfortable with that focus area, add in something else, like shopping with cash or planning meals that use less expensive ingredients.

5. Don’t Compare Yourself to Other Bloggers or People You See on “Extreme Couponing”

Finally, it’s easy to become discouraged when you see savings of like 80 to 100% on blogs or the Extreme Couponing show. You can feel like you just don’t measure up because you’re over there working really hard and only seeing 30% savings.

Don’t compare yourself to anyone else but yourself — unless you want to end up feeling discouraged. You can only do what you can do. Plus, I promise that those folks who are highlighting their amazing 99% savings shopping trips are not seeing those kinds of savings every single shopping trip.

What advice do the rest of you have for Carrie? I’ve love to hear!

For step-by-step help in lowering your grocery budget, be sure to check out my 31 Days to a Better Grocery Budget series.

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Comments

  1. Andrea says

    Hi! It has taken me about a year to get our family budget under control. We pay very close attention to price, just because it’s at a bulk food store doesn’t mean it’s cheaper to buy it there and just because it’s on sale doesn’t mean it’s a good deal. My husband does help a lot but I’ve started keeping a spread sheet I can look at that I got from money saving mom. One website I really like for recipes is skinnytaste.com. She has some really tasty recipes that don’t require a lot of expensive ingredients, mostly just seasoning. We also rarely buy from the inner isles, meaning the prepackaged stuff. I make shredded chicken for my husband’s lunches and package things myself. Good luck and don’t give up.

  2. Shelley says

    I am doing a budget for this year, for the first time with baby number three on the way. Where I find I get stuck is lunch on the weekends! I try to have hotdogs or… I can’t even think of anything else! We end up blowing money on fast food because I either don’t have anything for lunches or I can’t think of anything! Does anyone have lunch ideas that aren’t sandwiches as I send my husband and daughter to work/school with a sandwich.

    • Heather says

      Some quick lunches we do are bean/cheese quesadillas, hot dogs, spaghetti(can make meatless or with just a small amount of meat), soup and crackers, leftovers, chicken fried rice(again just a small amount of meat, maybe 1 large chicken breast since this includes 2-3 eggs for protein), mac and cheese and beanie weenies, salmon patties, baked beans and cornbread, baked potato bar(I cook my baked potatoes in the crockpot). Hope this helps.

  3. Jennifer says

    We are a family of 6 that spends just $400 a month on groceries, toiletries, paper products, and all that, total! I agree that using CASH is one of the biggest ways to help control spending, but it can take some getting used to. I also agree that Aldi can be a big help. I do coupon, but some weeks are just too crazy and Aldi saves me. I’m curious, if we are already so frugal, how can we cut? We already eat beans, pasta, and only chicken and hamburger. It’s not like I buy expensive cuts of meat. So what do we cut if we want to reduce our spending when it’s already so little, to me anyway? I really don’t want to eat more pasta and rice, we try to watch our carbs, lol Any suggestions?

    • Rita says

      I have to agree with some of the other comments, pay cash! This solved my problem of constantly going over our budget, there is something about parting with cash that makes me stop and think do we really need that. Also I’m not sure what your family eats but we go meatless at least two times a week (I’m a vegetarian and the rest of my clan eats meat and dairy) that helps save to and get creative with freezer meals, salads as main dishes, soups, etc.

    • Heather says

      Just an idea- you could try cutting out some of the paper products and switching to cloth napkins instead of paper towels, and using old rags for cleaning instead of using paper towels. Maybe try making a few homemade cleaners with baking soda and vinegar to cut your costs there as well. Soup is something you can make with lots of veggies and beans, that is cheap to make and would help cover you for a couple lunches. Also try cutting your meat intake, these days even hamburger meat is not cheap. Either eat a meatless meal once a week or cut the meat in half in some recipes, like spaghetti or chili. If you buy any sodas or juices, those could be cut down some to save some extra money. Hope this helps.

  4. Roberta Dunaway says

    If you don’t have the time to clip paper coupons or just don’t take the time or have access to them look into digital coupons that you can load to your store discount card. I load all coupons that I might buy before they expire that way if I see a good sale the coupon is already there. Just last week my 16 yr old ran into the store to pick up tampons and saved a $1 because I had pre-loaded the coupon to the store card.

    If you plan 5-7 meals around the sales for the week you will save money as well.

    Roberta

  5. Danielle S says

    I would recommend doubling meals and freezing them. So, take a family favorite ( mine stuffed peppers, lasagna, etc). When I see that the items to make those meals go on sale then I will buy extra and make an extra meal or two and then freeze it. Not only do you save money, but you also have a ready made meal when you don’t feel up to cooking, which saves money again.

    I have also started making things from scratch. It may seem hard or time consuming at first, but it really isn’t. Every Saturday morning we have pancakes or waffles. I double the batch and then freeze the rest for breakfast the rest of the week. Its cheaper than buying a package or ready made pancakes and waffles.

    • KED says

      I think Danielle touched on a key component of trimming down your budget, that is cooking from scratch. Don’t buy convenience or prepackaged foods. Dice and chop your own peppers, onions, etc. Don’t buy 1 lb. packages of ground beef when it is cheaper to buy a 5 or 10 lb. package and divide it yourself. The same goes with buying a whole chicken vs. one already cut up for you. Buying a big container of oatmeal or grits vs. those individual packages. Simple things and a little preparation can make a big difference. My family of 4 spends on average $ 80.00 per week including paper products and cleaning supplies. We usually eat out once a week, also usually for $ 25.00 or less, but sometimes not at all.

      We pack our lunches everyday to take to school or work. We also make a big batch of waffles or pancakes on the weekend that can carry through the week. My youngest daughter and I usually get together and bake some sort of treat (cookies, muffins or cupcakes) for her lunch box on Sunday afternoons along with a soup, chili or stew to cover us for a meal or two and maybe some lunches too.

      We also do a summer garden on my mom’s farm. It usually feeds my family of 4, plus my mom, and my two brother’s family too. It is awesome to see the kids counting the days until they get to pick and eat something from the garden. This year we are going to also do a few things on our back patio.

  6. Rhonda says

    Dave Ramsey Budget/Cash makes a huge difference. You do need to take the time to look at the ads. If canned fruit is on sale at a great price (you’ll learn over time), and your family eats canned fruit, buy 30 cans so that you’re not grabbing it at its regular/highest price. Some products you don’t want to go cheap on but many store brands are made on the same line as the national products, simply packaged differently. If you are shopping to your menu each week, your likely not taking advantage of grocery deals. Menu plan around the sales. Only buy your meats when they are at their best prices. I buy a lot when hamburger or boneless chicken breasts or whole pork loins are $1.99/lb so I don’t get stuck paying the regular price. Oh and Costco may not be cheaper, you need to know your prices to be sure. Will it take a few hours to compare, yes, but if it saves you $50 to $100/month is it worth it? That’s piano lessons for me.

  7. Katie says

    Use Cash!! It’ll make you think twice before putting something in your cart. We are a family of 4 (1 an infant but he can’t eat!!!) and budget $300 a month (that’s all food and toiletries including diapers, etc). However, that does not include meat. My husband is muslim so we don’t buy meat at the grocery store. I shop at Aldi’s and Walmart for my groceries. For produce I shop at a Hispanic grocery store. Their produce is so much better and EXTREMELY cheaper! I can load up an entire grocery cart of produce and have never spent more than $30. For the meat, we buy in bulk and freeze it. We spend about $200 a trip which lasts us 3 -4 months. We have a costco membership (for other reasons) but I don’t shop there, I think you can find better deals elsewhere. And don’t be picky about name brands. The name brands are the ones who are selling the store brands. same products. Try different ones out, you never know what you’ll like. I love a lot of store brands more than name brands.

  8. Rhonda says

    Oh and what are y’all drinking? Tell everyone to suck it up, you’re switching to tap water (except a baby) for one month. No grown up beverages either and see what you’ll save. If you’re not ready to do it for real. Just add up all the drinks you purchased on a month’s worth of receipts. It might be huge.

  9. maggie says

    make your own muffins, waffles, pancakes. It’s easy. I can’t believe some of the processed, pre-packaged stuff that is out there. make your own corn bread from scratch instead of the box mix. I have not purchased box corn bread mix in at least 5 years. Make your own waffles and freeze them. Then you can put them in the toaster just like Eggos. Cheaper and no preservatives when you make your own. And what’s up with potatoes in a box?! You can buy a whole lot more real potatoes than instant potatoes in a box. Also, chop and wash your own lettuce. I know the bags are very popular, but compared to a head of lettuce, you’re paying for someone else to cut and wash that lettuce.

  10. Amy says

    It takes a lot of time to learn new skills for anybody! Carrie shouldn’t feel badly that she isn’t doing cheap grocery shopping as well as others who have been working at it for a long time. My suggestion would be since Carrie already menu plans, she should menu plan with the food ad of the store she shops at. That way the sale prices are built into her menu. We buy a lot of fresh meats and produces which you can’t usually coupon for, so menu planning around the sale items that week makes a huge difference in our grocery budget.

    I also “shop” and menu plan around what is already in the freezer and pantry. Making sure I am using up stuff I have already purchased and requiring fewer purchases that grocery store trip.

  11. BUSY MOM IN AL says

    Hi! I loved reading through all of the comments and made several notes for myself. Just ordered coupons from Ebay for my favorite dark chocolate bar as well! Thanks!!

    We buy ground turkey when it is on sale ($1/lb or so in a roll in the freezer section of the hometown grocery store) and I can make many meals by using two different seasoning mixes. One is a Breakfast Sausage Mix (with a tablespoon of maple syrup added!) and the other is an Italian Sausage Seasoning Mix. Do a google search and try some of your own mixes!

    We love the breakfast sausage mix for crustless sausage quiche and breakfast burritos. The Italian Sausage Mix tastes really good in spaghetti, pizza and soup!

    Hope this helps!

  12. BUSY MOM IN AL says

    Thought of one more thing. We buy the 6lb cans of corn, crushed tomatoes, black olives, pineapples, mushrooms etc. for a whole lot cheaper than the small cans. Our local grocery store carries these on a bulk aisle. Maybe you can try that.

    We separate them into ziploc bags and freeze them flat on a cookie sheet. I love having black olives and mushrooms to make my spaghetti and pizza! The pineapples make great smoothies. I put the 6lb can of crushed tomatoes, add some italian spices and tomato paste to thicken, and make huge crockpot of tomato sauce for my freezer. Divide it and freeze in portions that you need.

  13. Allison says

    please forgive me if someone has already said the following but I am a homeschooling mom with little extra time…

    -Costco can be deceiving. There are few items there that are cheaper than a great coupon deal. That being said, there a few items I but there anyhow because I don’t have time to track down a gazillion coupons for single rolls of TP! LOL :)

    -Have you tried Amazon? They have an amazing selection of food and household items (especially if you have particular diet restrictions/ food allergies) that is often way cheaper than any store.

    -I have fallen in love with our local store’s manager’s clearance rack and we actually rely more on that now than shopping with coupons. It’s super easy to run to the back of the store first and check it then do your shopping. No coupons or calculators required!

    -It sounds like you are doing a great job completing the grocery shopping with 3 kids! Especially since you have an infant! I’m impressed.

  14. Paula says

    I love reading your articles. They are so encouraging! We are truly blessed to have you supporting us!

  15. Eleanor says

    In terms of being picky about brand names, choose a few products that you’re allowed to buy the fanciest brand for, and try and choose cheaper brands for everything else. Also, you don’t always have to buy the very cheapest brand, mid-range brands are still saving you money over the expensive ones.