Spending Diary: 13 Ways I Stick to My Grocery Budget

Hispanic couple shopping in grocery store
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By Raechel Conover

Grocery shopping on a budget is tough for anyone, but throw in the fact that I usually shop with a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old, and the outing is hardly the most fun part of my week. Every month when we look at our budget, the supermarket is one place I think I can save more. At the same time, I'm picky about what I buy and where I shop; I strongly prefer to eat and feed my family organic and fresh foods. In general we spend roughly $150 a week on groceries, including all paper products and cleaning supplies -- and the four gallons of milk my two boys drink every week. Here are some tricks I use to try to limit grocery spending.

Buy meats in bulk. Meat is one food that's definitely worth buying organic. Why? Because I don't want my family to eat meat pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones, or from animals fed a diet of genetically modified corn. I used to buy our meat from Whole Foods but eventually wised up. After visiting a few local farmers markets, I found a farmer willing to sell me organic meat in bulk three or four times a year. We have a chest freezer in the basement that's handy for storing all the extra meat.

Hit Costco once a month.Costco really helps me stretch my grocery budget. All the paper goods we use (paper towels, toilet paper, tissues, napkins, paper plates) are available at cheaper prices in bulk. Ditto on cleaning supplies. I believe in chemical-free cleaning, so we barely use household cleaners, but dishwasher detergent, dish soap, and laundry detergent all come from Costco. Additionally, we buy certain bulk food items at the warehouse club once a month. Did you know Costco has a wide selection of organic food? We buy organic maple syrup, fruit snacks, applesauce pouches, and frozen fruit and vegetables. Costco carries the best fresh organic berries I've seen this summer, so we always grab those, as well as anything else that looks good in the produce section.

Make a list and stick to it. I don't enter any grocery store without a list. Sticking to a list is hard -- especially with two youngsters begging for everything they see. To avoid a grocery store meltdown over wants vs. needs, I give my kids choices. When looking at cereals, for instance, I let them choose between two options. I just make sure that each is cheap or on sale and I'm okay with whichever they pick. I do this for fruit snack flavors, types of crackers, yogurt varieties, etc. This makes them feel as though they're getting what they want, yet the items are already on my list.

Make a meal plan. One thing that makes it easier to make a list and stick to it: a weekly meal plan. If I know what we'll be having for dinner each night, creating a list takes very little extra effort. (Breakfast and lunch during the week are simple affairs, so I don't need a meal plan for those.)

Plan a meatless dinner once or twice a week. In our weekly meal plan, I always include one dinner without meat. If our budget is tight for the month, or I exceeded the grocery budget the week before, I'll throw in a second meatless dinner to save some cash. Often we have vegetable omelets, homemade veggie pizza, or bean burritos. During the summer, vegetable pasta salad and caprese salad with crusty bread are rotated in. If we're really feeling lazy, sometimes we have grilled cheese and soup. I always make sure everyone feels satisfied on these nights by setting out extra protein, such as apple slices with peanut butter or cottage cheese and sliced fruit.

Make your own at home. Another component of saving at the grocery store is making food at home that I could easily buy. "Easy" is the sticking point for many people -- yes, it takes more effort to make certain things, but shelling out extra cash for packaged items hurts the budget. Foods I make at home include sandwich bread, snacks (e.g., energy balls, cookies and muffins), tortilla shells, salad dressing, and pasta sauce. I also buy whole heads of lettuce, whole carrots, and other vegetables and prepare them myself rather than pay more for pre-cut produce. Ditto on cheese: Buying in large blocks and using a good shredder saves a lot.

Cook in bulk and freeze. Another way I stretch our budget is to make large portions -- more than we can eat in one meal. This way I know I can rely on leftovers later in the week rather than buy ingredients for a whole new meal. Sometimes I prepare enough to freeze half and help the budget in another week. I do this most often with spaghetti sauce, certain slow-cooker meals, and potpies.

Use coupons. This one is pretty self-explanatory, but you would not believe how hard it is in our busy life to find the time to search out coupons. I usually do this as I'm getting the shopping list ready, starting with paper coupons and store apps. I also search coupon sites such as Coupons.com, Red Plum, and Smart Source for printable coupons. Certain brands send out coupons on a regular basis. I signed up for the Driscoll's mailing list and regularly receive emailed coupons for produce we buy regularly. I use coupons only for products I would be buying anyway, and if the coupon requires me to buy more than I need just to get the discount, I don't do it.

Sign up for store rewards cards. Aside from Costco, our primary shopping destination is Kroger, where the Kroger Plus Card helps save big bucks on groceries and gas. The grocery chain mails coupons for specific foods or money off a total purchase, and the card gets us discounts on stocked products that vary by the week. It's definitely worth the time to sign up for the loyalty cards offered by nearby grocers.

Shop at more than one store. I am a loyal Kroger customer in part because of the store's Simple Truth Organic line. It makes buying organic much cheaper. That said, there are some things that can't be beat at Whole Foods (such as certain organic produce) or Trader Joe's (such as pre-made pizza dough and pizza sauce).

Shop the sales. No matter where I'm shopping, I look for the weekly sales list first. Kroger places weekly circulars at the store entrance, while the local Whole Foods and Trader Joe's use chalkboards. This information lets me know immediately what's on sale so I can check it against my list, grab it, and move on.

Go to the store only on grocery day. This may be the single most important thing I've started doing: We never -- I repeat, never -- set foot in the store anytime during the week except on grocery day. That means buying enough staples to get us through the week and avoid repeat visits. I know if we break this rule we will surpass our grocery budget, because if we go to the store, we always think we need (really, want) something else besides what we went in to buy.

Check out strategically. Remember that make-a-list-and-stick-to-it tip from earlier? Sure, stuff makes it into our cart that wasn't on the list. My solution to this is the way I check out: I unload the cart first with the things on our list. After the cashier rings up those items, I ask for the total. If we're under budget, I pick a few items that weren't on the list and add them to the haul. An occasional splurge is fine, so long as we're not overspending.
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