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6 Lessons Learned From An All-Cash Grocery Budget

all cash grocery budget

Guest post from Jennifer

It’s been just over a year since my big budgeting ah-ha moment and switching to an all-cash grocery budget. It has not been easy, and some months got pretty ugly — peanut butter and jelly for a week of lunch may appeal to kids but it’s not my favorite.

Overall switching to a cash budget has been a success and something I will continue to do for my family. I have learned some lessons, made mistakes, and even cheated and swiped the debit card on a few occasions.

Here are 6 lessons I’ve learned, and why our all-cash grocery budget is the best budgeting decision our family has made to date. Our savings account will back me up on this!

1. You can eat healthfully on a budget.

Seriously, it can happen, and actually I started buying healthier food since going on my all cash budget.

I will let you know that my family doesn’t eat organic, we love gluten, and luckily, have no food allergies. We do eat “real” food like fruits, vegetables, whole grain, and very little processed foods. I do like to cook/bake and have utilized this skill more over the past year.

My biggest secret for affording healthy foods is to buy in-season. We eat a lot of strawberries in June, apples in September, and tomatoes in July. We seem to eat our weight in corn on the cob and zucchini in the summer and hop on the pumpkin bandwagon in the fall!

I also freeze a lot of in-season foods so we can enjoy them out of season. Right now my freezer is filled with frozen strawberries and corn on the cob. I’m making room for the apples this fall.

2. A simple meal plan isn’t a bad thing.

I follow a very basic plan when planning my meals, especially dinners. We have a protein, starch, and vegetable. The protein is usually meat of some sort — chicken, ground turkey, or ground beef. I know we could save money by eating vegetarian once a week, but we like meat and as long as we can afford meat, we’ll eat it for nearly every dinner.

Our breakfasts and lunches are also pretty simple. Fortunately at this time in our lives, our mornings are pretty relaxed since my oldest has afternoon preschool. We are able to make eggs, toast, or pancakes each morning for breakfast. This is really cheap and a pretty healthy. Lunches are usually made up of leftovers or PB&J’s with fruit and crackers. I’ll admit, variety may be lacking in our lunches, but it does keep the costs down!

I know that someday, I will be able to get more adventurous in the kitchen. But in my season of life (two boys ages 3 and 5, and two more babies on the way), simple meal planning is my best friend. I don’t have the time, money, and more importantly the energy to follow a Martha Stewart recipe each night for dinner. I try for variety, but won’t allow my budget to suffer for an elaborate meal.

I also attempt to create a meal plan each week, I will admit that this gets done about 75% of the time, but when it does get done the entire week seems more organized and easy going. Since I shop primarily at Aldi, I don’t really have to base my meal plans on what’s on sale since everything seems to be on sale all the time at this store. Since starting my cash budget I take this more seriously, I know my funds are limited and every dollar counts.

3. It’s very helpful to know what my food costs.

I know what a good price for milk is, and when to stock up on ground beef. I won’t overpay for lettuce because I’m much more aware of the price of my food.

I also know how much I need left at the end of my 15-day pay cycle in order to get milk, eggs, peanut butter, and bread–the essentials to make it through those last couple of days, if need be.

In short I’m a more intelligent shopper, and am aware that just because a flashy ad claims that paying $1.99/lb for grapes is a great deal I know that is much more than I’m willing to pay, and will wait a few weeks until they are $0.79/lb.

4. It’s okay to cheat sometimes.

In the beginning I made some mistakes and fell back into bad habits.

I quickly learned that paying a few dollars on the debit card was not the end of the world. Kids will get sick and need medicine, milk will run out more quickly than expected, and not everything you need for the week will be on sale.

The important thing is I’ve learned from my mistakes, and continue to learn how to make my money stretch as far as possible while still preparing good food for my family.

5. A bare refrigerator no longer stresses me out.

In the past, if our refrigerator looked empty, I had to go to the grocery store to fill it up — even if I had run out of money in my imaginary budget. I didn’t like the thought of not having anything to eat, even though there was food to eat, just not a plethora of food that would eventually get thrown out.

Now I like that my fridge is bare, because I know that the food that is in there is food that will get eaten. Rarely does food go to waste in this house anymore, because I know the value of that half eaten salad, or can come up with something to do with the leftover vegetables from two nights ago.

I’m not afraid to mix two almost empty bottles of different flavored salad dressing together to make a new and “exciting” marinade for chicken — guess what’s for dinner tonight? I embrace the challenge of the bare refrigerator, and am saving money while tackling it!

6. It really works, and I won’t go back.

The concept is simple, pay in cash and stop shopping when you run out of money.

The reality is a little more difficult. There is a learning curve involved in making the leap from card to cash, and it can be pretty embarrassing to have to put that bag of chips back because you simply don’t have the money for them.

Grocery stores are tricky places that are strategically set up to get your money, and sometimes they win. I am happy to say, for me, most of the time they don’t.

Have you tried only using cash to buy groceries?

My name is Jennifer Willis, I’m a stay-at-home mom to two boys, Henry is 5 and Charlie is 3 and we’re excited to welcome boy/girl twins this December. My husband John and I have been married for nearly 8 years and live in Olathe, Kansas. I love to embroider, binge watch TV shows, and create train tracks and Lego houses with my boys.

photo source

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  • Aliesha says:

    Jennifer, this is such a great post! We do a lot of the things you mentioned as well, but I really liked your point about having a simple meal plan! I think sometimes I can get carried away with wanting to try new recipes, but simple is better when our lives are busy! Thanks for sharing all these tips.

  • Kris says:

    #5 is sooo true for me! I sometimes think that cramming our fridge will keep me from going to the store more often. Not really the case 🙂

  • NaDell says:

    I’ve been using cash for groceries for years now. I keep tally marks for each dollar spent to keep track of where I’m at to avoid going over. And if I do go over, I always have an idea of what I can take out of the list and save for the next week.
    Tally marks are the best. Round up and then there’s a little left over for fun sometimes.

    • Julia says:

      Good idea! I’m going to borrow it this week!

    • Amy says:

      What a great idea! I love it! Tally marks would be so much simpler than trying to keep an actual dollar amount in my head, especially when my children are with me. It would be an easy trick to teach them, too. ☺️

      • Mandy says:

        I always use a small notebook and pencil to add as I go. That helps me a ton. Then I am not shocked when I get to the register.

    • Jennifer says:

      Wow. Tally marks are so smart. I’m going to try that. It is sometimes hard to add the totals with a two year old “helping”! Thanks for the idea.

    • MK says:

      I made fun of my mom for this when I was growing up. So glad she did it, though, because it’s been a lifesaver for me! I should probably mention that to her at some point… 😉

    • Kerry says:

      I still haven’t made the leap to cash only, but tally marks are the best! My kids are usually with me when we go shopping (usually Aldi) and rounding up and keeping tally marks are their “job” at the store! It really sharpens their math skills: rounding, tallying, figuring out how much multiples of items cost – how many tallies to put for 2 $1.50 items, 3 or 4? – and how much money is left in our budget for the trip – is there money left for ice cream? We also make it a game: we try to see how close our estimate can come to the actual bill. If they come within $2 or less, they get to keep the shopping cart quarter! My 9-year-old was only 99 cents off today; she was thrilled to collect her “reward!”

    • Cathy says:

      I started doing the tally marks awhile ago when I was shopping a buy 10 items for $10 and get every 11th item free sale. You really have to count every single item to make sure you have a multiple of 11 in your cart or you lose out on a free item!

      It really is a quick and easy method of keeping track of your bill without typing it all in the calculator right in the store–I always messed it up halfway through the store.

  • Tammy says:

    I’ve been using cash since we got married (so, 14+ years). It really works well for us!

    I also do not mind a fridge that is not crammed full of food. For one thing, I buy perishable food that isn’t laden with preservatives. So I can’t stuff the fridge because our family is small and we wouldn’t get through things before they went bad!

  • Jennifer says:

    My fridge is bare and has been for a couple of weeks because I’ve really been trying to use what we have in our meal plan. The thinking that you need to run out to the store and fill up a bare refrigerator is tough to break.
    Right now we’ve got milk, a little sour cream, a half a bag of cheese, grapes and two bunches of carrots (there was a sale). This weekend I looked at my mostly empty shelves and thought “I’ve got to go shopping.” But then I paused and decided we were all set because we had everything we needed for the meals I had planned.

    I try to carry cash and never use my debit card because it’s harder to remember what I’ve spent when I’m using a debit card. But when I do use the card at the grocery, I find myself not being so disciplined.

    Great post 🙂

  • Julia says:

    I finally started paying cash for groceries this month, after years of wanting to try it but not being sure I could. So far so good! I’m hoping the savings add up over time. It’s hard to tell after just one month.

  • We have done this in the past but somehow stopped … we are jumping back on the bandwagon this month! Fingers crossed!

  • Belinda says:

    I really enjoyed your post! And I can certainly relate to keeping the meal plan simple whilst your children are so young – that is a decision that I made a while ago also.

    I love having a reasonably bare fridge too… is so much easier to manage the food that is in in there and to achieve the goal of ‘zero wastage’.

    I’ve been doing pretty well with our grocery budget in the last year…but will try doing the cash only method, to see if that tweaks it further.

  • Delorise says:

    Enjoyed your post so very much. I also pay cash for groceries and keep our menus fairly simple. We still eat well and meal preparaton is a lot easier.

  • Diane says:

    We’ve been on cash only grocery budget 6+ yrs. The first couple of months were a lot of potatoes at the end of the month but I learned!

  • Savannah says:

    Great tips! So encouraging as I have just started this a week ago! I’ve been cooking and baking from scratch so much more and I forgot how much I enjoyed it 🙂

  • Crystal says:

    I think this is a great post, and I think people need to realize that it does take a few months to work out the kinks and learn from our mistakes. We all need a little grace! Nothing easy is worth doing and if we stick to something like this than it really does pay off! Congratulations on the new babies!! Very excited for you.

  • Laurie says:

    This post is a great reminder of making a list and a meal plan. It is me and my 2 kids who are 6&10. The girls are eating more,but with careful budgeting and making our meals we have leftover from dinner for the next night and for my work lunches. I have been actually shopping at Trader Joes and find most of their produce right in line with Aldi. Shopping with cash is also a benefit too.

  • Amy says:

    I haven’t fully embraced an all-cash grocery budget yet, but I agree with a lot of the principles you discussed. Meal planning and shopping the pantry/fridge have proven to be great money-saving strategies for me!

  • April says:

    I just started using this approach and it has helped us so much:) Meal planning is key, you definitely can eat healthy on a budget.

  • Lynn says:

    I completely agree with so many of your points! Simple meal plans and knowing food costs (#2 and #3) are key! For me and for many others, however, using a credit card and paying it off each month works better than using all cash. We are motivated by having a low balance and then paying it off each and every month. For us, meal planning and buying only what is on sale and in season has been the key. It IS possible to eat healthfully and to stay within budget even without using cash. 🙂

  • Cheryl says:

    Very good suggestions though for us paying with cash is NOT the best way to go. We have a credit card that gives 2% cash back on purchases and because we pay it off each month we EARN money by using a credit card. I get tired of the negative publicity about credit cards but appreciate your reminders to live within your means and stick to a budget! 🙂 Finding great deals on groceries brings a sense of success & accomplishment!

  • Tiff says:

    I have done this in the past, and let me tell you it IS possible to eat mostly organic fruits and veggies this way! I always a lot “x” % to my produce and how I allocate it is the key. We buy freezer beef once a year and it really saves on my grocery budget. Breaking your cash down into a pie chart and looking at what you spend really helps with frivolous (sp?) spending. Of course, I can through that out the window if my hubby shops with me lol.

  • Tracy says:

    I had been trying to do this for a year. This month I actually did it. I am so happy and it really has taken some stress out of my life. Last night my mom who my son and I live with, wanted some doughnuts and ice cream from the grocery store. I told her that all of our grocery money was gone until Friday when I got paid again. So she said alright I will use my own money. This was the first time in months that she didn’t argue with me. I believe it was all do to me praying to God to help me provide for my family without going into more debt.

  • Becky says:

    I’ve been using cash for about 10 years now and find it super helpful. I know that I make different choices using it such as skipping the junk food most times, buying needs first such as dinner veggies (then using the remainder for lunches, etc. rather than buying special fruit just for lunches), and by stocking up, knowing that I now despise paying full price for anything.
    Since I stock up, we always have food in the freezer/pantry to “shop” from each week for our menu. I supplement with fresh produce, dairy, and anything that happens to be on sale that week. I start my weekly menu by checking my pantry then checking the sale flyers. I rarely pay full price anymore, and it’s totally made a positive difference in our spending.
    If I find myself using my debit card at the end or beginning of a month before we’ve budgeted & have taken out our allotted monthly cash, I notice that I have far less self discipline with what I put in the cart. Cash rocks!

  • I have been using a cash envelope since getting married two years ago. It has worked very well for us as well. One thing I do however is to take two re-usable bags to the store with me; each trips goods need to fit into two bags. This helps me stick to my list; each bag is large, easy to carry, and as I need room for actual goods and produce, I am less and less tempted to buy junk as I haven’t the room in my bags, nor in my budget. I also take bags for each store, so when I get home the goods for each store is already in the bag designated for each store, for Walmart, save-a-lot, cvs, etc., which makes finding goods for savings apps easier as well! Great post!

  • Kim says:

    We have had our credit card/debit numbers stolen before and now just keep one for emergencies. One of the many reasons we use cash now to grocery shop. I coupon, look for sales and base our dinners around that. If we have a little extra in the savings, I will splurge to make freezer meals that last us for a couple of months, then stock up on pantry items and toiletries in the mean time. It works for us. 🙂

  • I love this post! Making a meal plan for the week is a great idea – helps you know exactly what you need at the store so you aren’t just throwing everything in the cart! Thanks for posting!

  • Cindy says:

    I am a Single mother of 2 girls, I love the tally idea. But I have started giving my 15 year old the calculator and she is rounding up the dollar amount as we go round the store to accommodate the tax. It is interesting to watch her realize the cost of things and she will actually question me on purchases as to whether or not we really need it! So it is working for us and my daughter is now getting the education on grocery shopping and sticking to a budget!

  • Mary says:

    Great list! I think we eat a lot better now that I am sticking to a budget and cash! I did it to save money but it turns out there are other benefits! Planning meals and making a list are a must, and I have to go shopping alone. Lol lol…the family is not keen on the emptier pantry and fridge though. The only issue i run into is the unexpected guests for dinner sometimes, if i have already spent my money its tricky to come up with a more interesting meal. Thank goodness for pasta! Cheap and versatile, its my lifesaver!

  • Sheri says:

    I have learned that shopping every other week, ( except milk and bread) can save more money. Once it gets cooler,mew will get back to baking bread. It’s too hot to use the oven inside now. We have electric appliances outside we can use when it’s hot. Better yet, eat food that doesn’t need to be cooked! Cold burritos, sandwiches, salad…

    I’m trying to not use the card for gas in my car, only cash. It seems that once the gas is in the car, it’s free. By it’s not! It needs to be replaced.

    Cash does makes it easier to stay in budget!

  • I try to shop with cash as well, and stick to the budget when I’ve got the card. I stay under budget by estimating my food costs when I make my list (always rounding up) and only subtracting out coupons for items that I’m ONLY buying because of an awesome coupon. If it’s an item I’m buying with or without a coupon, but I still have a coupon, or it’s a small coupon, I put it in at full price. That pads my estimates enough that I’m always under.

  • Great article! I just recently started setting aside my grocery/diaper cash for the month and using only that, and it makes a HUGE difference!
    Not only does it make you more aware of pricing, and cautious about where you’re spending your money, but it’s like a game I wanna win by being able to celebrate at the end of the month that I have a little left over! 😉

  • Susan says:

    Great ideas! I’ve tried “cash only” in the past and it worked splendidly. Not sure why I stopped but I need to get back into that beneficial habit. I also haven’t been very serious about menu planning as I once was (I had the same menu plan as you). I eat a lot more junk food without a plan and obviously spend much more money. Thank you for the motivation!

  • paula says:

    My mother had a little red plastic clicker counter thing that she used to keep track of what she put in the cart. It had three or four buttons the she would use to enter dollar and cents of each item and it kept a running tally. I wish I could get one of those. Very simple and inexpensive. Anyone know if they still sell these?

  • Amber says:

    I am looking for advice on how to start paying with cash for groceries. ..we have 6 kids (3-17yrs) and our grocery budget is crazy…im always buying and our fridge is always empty!!

  • Cindy says:

    Here is new plan I am trying this summer. It is based off the once a month shopping idea. I made a list of all the foods we eat on a regular basis. Some of those are treats that keep my husband happy, so I stock them for him. I get grocery money every two weeks. I used to spend half one week and half the next week. Now, once a month, I look at what we have in the pantry, and buy enough items from the list foods we eat regularly to last a month. Some items I only buy when on sale, so I wait and watch for the week they are on sale and then buy a month’s worth with some of my weekly money. I also determined my weekly shopping list for things like produce, bread and milk that I can’t store well for a month and added $15 to that amount to save for each weekly mini shopping trip.

    For example, for the June monthly shop, I wanted to stock up on ground beef, but it wasn’t on sale. I saved back the $30 I had budgeted for ground beef and then this week it was in sale for the Fourth of July. The regular price was $4.59, but it was on sale for $2.99. I shopped in the morning and all the packages left from the day before were marked down 20%, so I ended up paying only $2.39 a pound. I was able to buy a LOT of ground beef with my $30 and it should last us about 3 months I think!

    Also on my weekly shop, I saw that the soda my husband drinks daily (no lectures, it is his thing . . . ) was on sale buy 3, get 3 free. That worked out to $2.50 for an eight pack. I normally get them on sale for $4/PK. So I bought 6 packs for what I normally would pay for four packs and now I don’t need to buy it again for 6 more weeks.

    I am sticking with the monthly and weekly lists and saving any extra money aside for certain items. In July, I will put aside any extra money to use toward buying some new bath towels. In August, it will be extra for school clothes.

  • Brandi Carson says:

    We have been a cash budget for years now and I love it. I love Aldi and shopped there regularly but my family has moved 4 times in the last two years and we no longer have Aldi. We used to live on the West coast, where there isn’t Aldi either but they have 99¢only store that have great deals and a ton of Hispanic grocery stores that sell produce even cheaper than Aldi in most cases! Our family has grown in the last two years also. My littles are getting big and now we have more littles! Lol. 5 kiddos in all. We follow all the standard budgeting, cost saving techniques. Buying on sale, with coupons, not a brand snob by any means, cooking from scratch constantly, freezer meals, buying only what is on sale for the week and planning a menu around that, ad match at Walmart like crazy, our fridge is bare at the end of every week, we love produce and don’t eat a ton of meat. Our budget just keeps going up. I find it’s partly because our family IS growing but a huge difference is not having a inexpensive store like Aldi to go to. We have been living in the Colorado Springs area for 4 months now and have had to keep bumping our budget to make due. Kinda stressing me out. Any mamas out there in this region with any secret tips or hidden gems of a store I just haven’t found yet? It would be greatly appreciated!

    • Hannah F says:

      I’ve heard good things about Trader Joe’s and add matching can be helpful at Wal-Mart so you aren’t driving everywhere. I also love Costco but don’t get there often enough now for a membership 🙁 We live in Canon City and, compared to where we lived before in Wyoming, things are significantly cheaper but I know it isn’t nearly as cheap as others. Look into Bountiful Baskets. It’s a produce co-op that has saved me a TON of money! I have never been disappointed and it’s about a 50% discount. It is $15 for a basket with a ton of produce and they have “add-ons” each month sometimes with tortillas, bulk produce, coconut oil, and even frozen chicken. There are a few drops in CO Springs each week. Azure Standard also has excellent bulk health food and I get most of my grains/beans from them. You order once a month and pick it up at a drop point in Springs. Both of these have websites – just google ’em 🙂 I hope that helps!

  • lyndy says:

    I think the cash only grocery buying works great we have struggled and we started using cash and i plan every meal before going to the store. I have friends struggling right and have tried explaing this but for some reason she thinks im nuts i guessbut i know it really works and we eat good.

  • Barbara says:

    While I haven’t made the leap to cash, I only buy groceries 2x/month. Admittedly, we do run to the store when we run out of items but we manage to stay in budget most of the time. There isn’t an Aldis where we live so we shop at WM and take advantage of their coupon catcher app. WM has some price cut items that help save money (ie gallon of milk for $1.99) and we buy those items. For me, menu planning is key. It takes time but is very helpful when it comes to saving money. I seldom exceed our food budget and I know what prices are good and which ones are not.

  • Jennifer says:

    Though I haven’t used cash as you do to shop, I use my bank card and try to keep my grocery spend to $60 or less each time I go to the store (which is usually every other week when I get paid).
    I use the calculator on my cell phone and add everything up as I go. I get what we need and sometimes a little extra for next time. I do buy a lot of store brands,but we don’t mind eating them because they’re usually just as good or better as national brands.

  • Heather says:

    My husband and I are trying to pay down some debt so we started paying with cash to save money. I tried to shop well before, but that extra idea of having to put something back keeps you in line! It’s been working well for us. Now I just need to do a “live off our pantry” week!

  • Karen says:

    Start my shopping list with what is already in the freezer and the pantry. We stock up on meats when they are on sale, but as I have only the above-the-refrigerator freezer, the room is limited.
    So many weeks the spending is more, and some it is less. It averages out to an acceptable amount. We eat what is in season and what is/has been on sale, for the most part.

  • Tracy says:

    I do most of these, and it has made a difference. My issue is having 3 teenage boys that are constant eating machines! Seems most here have little ones. Meat is my trouble area.

  • Angela Davis says:

    I want to start grocery shopping on cash. I guess my question is where and how do you get started? I know once I get started I can do it but I don’t know what amount to start with, it feels like I go to the grocery store on a weekly basis.

  • Anna says:

    There used to be this cool gadget in the 60s my mom would use it had dollar,five,ten,and cents. If you grabbed say a loaf of bread you would hit the cents button and when you were done shopping you had a good idea not shock at register. Does anyone remember that little plastic had held gadget? Anyway I’ve learned when my fridge is empty scour my cabinets. Make it a game how many meals can I make before I truly have to go to the market. You’ll be amazed. The other day I had nothing to make for lunch. I was getting ready to go to the market but I checked my cabinets. Had bread, had eggs, one slice of cheese, a jalapeño a slice of ham. Made my husband a gigantic Moons over my Hammy sandwich. He said it was better than Dennys lol. It’s been a week and I’ve still be able to get away from going to the market just looking for things in my fridge,freezer and cabinets

  • Flo says:

    My family would LOVE to see a “bare” fridge!! I have a bad habit of buying so much produce, especially cabbage and leafy greens, that we lose part of them before we can find everything and eat it. We have a very chaotic non-schedule with several days a week when the only time there are people to eat the meal is breakfast, and even then it may have to be set aside for the swing shift person to eat later! (Volunteer EMTs/FFs) I know I buy more than we can eat with our present lifestyle. I am going to try cash this month and see if it goes better.
    The one positive I can say is we should have some prime compost, as any food waste goes either to the chickens or the compost pile; we put only one 13 gal bag of trash in our weekly pickup. The compost pot goes out at least every other day. With no food waste in there, we only have to take the trash out once a week. (Paper and other recyclables are dropped off most weeks.)

  • Katy says:

    Loved this article; thanks for sharing!

    How do you freeze your in season produce and use as a later date? If I freeze fruit, I feel as it holds well only in smoothies. I’ve never successfully used it for anything else. I’ve tried freezing in season vegetables, both blanching and not blanching, with either a bitter taste (not blanching) or too mushy (blanching).

    Thanks for any input!

    • awmeme says:

      For frozen fruit I use it for several things. Try just eating the chopped fruit as is frozen. It’s like a mini popsicle…all natural no added sugar. Add to pies, cobblers and crisps. Just thaw fruit mix in maybe some bananas and maybe whipped topping for fruit salad or put layered in a cute glass for a parfait. Let thaw and spoon over cheese cake, cake, angel food or other type, pancakes or waffles…doing it this way tends to create its own sauce without being super sweet. Veggies I tend to use in soups, pot pies, stews, fajitas’ egg scrambles and bakes. If blanching make sure for like corn on the cob make sure to only do it for about 2 mins. then put in an ice bath and drain prior to freezing. At least that’s the best way I’ve found.

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