An insider’s guide to grocery shopping on a budget – yes it’s possible (and it’s easy too)!

A family’s food budget is one of their largest spending categories, so it makes sense that if you need to save money, this is the place to do it!

Yes, everyone knows that dining out is expensive and that eating at home saves money. But even within at-home dining, there’s a lot of wiggle room to save. Grocery shopping on a budget is possible if you know the tricks.

Luckily, I know these tricks as I worked in a grocery store for six years. Today I’m spilling all the secrets! Let’s get to saving!

smart tips to help you grocery shop on a budget

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How much do people spend on groceries?

When looking to save money at the grocery store, it’s helpful to know the average spending by your peers. Because if you’re already spending at the low end, your potential savings may be less than someone that’s blowing it out of the water.

Now there are two numbers we’ll look at.

1) How much we “should” be spending on groceries

The USDA says that for March 2021, puts out a chart every month that gives guidelines on how much we should be spending on food at home.

USDA chart on food cost at home

I go deep into this chart and all the factors that play into it in How Much Should I be Spending on Groceries? It seems reasonable for some people, but definitly not all people, especially those in HCOL, food deserts, or those with special dietary needs.

2) How much we’re actually spending on groceries

According to NerdWallet, “The average cost of groceries for U.S. households is $4,643, based on 2019 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This works out to about $387 per month. Grocery spending has likely increased during the pandemic with people going out to eat less often.” At the same time, food outside of the home comes to $3,526 a year, or $293 a month.

These monthly figures seem really low to me, but my experience is shopping in a suburban area as a white mom with a good family income. My experience isn’t everyone else’s, and I realize that.

Yet, no matter your income level, you can still go grocery shopping on a budget, and here’s how to save money at the grocery store!

20 tips to grocery shopping on a budget

1 . Be flexible with your recipes.

When meal planning, you write down the ingredients you need. If you get to the store and you need 1/2 tsp of some obscure spice, and you haven’t used it before (and probably won’t need it again), maybe you should nix it from your grocery list and save that $5.99 4 oz bottle. Of course, you could look in the bulk spice section, so you can buy just a tiny amount, or substitute it with something you already have, or go without.

Making a meal plan sounds daunting, I know but you can make it easier by getting organized. Grab your grocery list & menu plan to help get you to do a freezer & pantry inventory. That way you can meal plan around what you already have in there.

It goes without saying, that you should meal plan similar flavor profiles together, so the ingredient list will overlap, so you buy and waste less. Also, make sure that you’re meal planning with ingredients that aren’t expensive. If you’re not sure about a particular item, Google it!

2 . Buy from the bulk bins

This is by far the easiest way to save! Buying from the bulk bins means you’re not paying for packaging, package design overhead, marketing overhead, etc. The benefits are also that you can buy just the amount you need or stock up. It’s helpful to know your store’s bulk department; the only time I pass buy items is if it seems stale. Ask the clerk how often they rotate goods.

Now the price per ounce difference may be just a few coins, but over a year they all add up, and they add up to a lot! Besides, you’re also helping the environment by lessing the plastic packing load.

Item:

almond granola

mixed nuts

ground cinnamon

Shelf price/ounce:

$.16

$.79

$.41

Bulk price/ounce:

$.11

$.42

$.31

3 . Buy dry goods

Now I know that soaking beans to make into chili sounds very old-fashioned, but it will save money on your grocery bill from their canned versions. With canned goods, you’re paying for water weight. So take a moment to buy dry beans/grains and soak them yourself.   SpruceEats estimates that 1/2 cup of dried beans = one 15 oz can of beans.

This is also a great way to help control the salt content of your food, as canned goods traditionally have a lot of salt.

For example, let’s look at kidney beans.

  • bag of dry kidney beans: $1.29 for a 16 oz bag = 4 cans = $.32 a can
  • can of kidney beans: $.74 for 15 oz

So, buying a bag of beans is similar to paying $.42 less a can.

4 . Don’t buy single servings of snacks

Yes, I know it’s very convenient to do this, as a small bag of crackers takes 2 seconds to put into a lunch box. But it costs a lot more, and you get a lot less. Besides, it seems that only highly processed food comes in snack packs. Grab some healthy food snack options instead and make your own snack size portions (i.e. whole-grain crackers, mixed nuts, nut butter and pretzels, dried fruit etc). Sure, it may take 10 minutes to do this, but healthy eating is important to instill at a young age.

  • Doritos
    • Family size: $3.98 for 14.5 oz bag = $.27 an ounce
    • Snack size: $7.78 for 18 – 1 oz bags = $.43 an ounce
  • Goldfish Crackers
    • 30 oz carton: $6.89 = $.23
    • snack pks: $4.19 for 9 – 1 oz bags = $.47 (double the price!)
  • Mother’s Animal Cookies:
    • $2.69 for 11 oz bag = $.24
    • snack pks: $4.19 for 12 – 1 oz bags = $.35

5 . Know your portion sizes

According to the American Heart Association, a portion size of meat is 3 oz cooked. That’s probably a lot less than the massive chicken breast at the meat counter. This can be great if your family likes leftovers, but sometimes this food goes to waste (aka in the garbage). So don’t buy four chicken breasts for your family of four; maybe buy two and cut them in half to help cut your grocery bill.

6 . Compare the price per ounce

Many shelf-stable food items (dry goods) come in a few different size options. Usually, the larger size has a more cost-effective price per ounce but not always, so it’s worth it to figure it out. Take the price divided by the ounces, and there is your number. If you buy this item often, then buy the size with the cheaper cost per ounce. If it’s something you haven’t bought before or hardly buy, then buy the smaller one (you may not like it, or it may expire before you eat it all).

7 . Shop the top & the bottom of the shelves

Do you know that brands pay more to be on the shelf at eye level in some store chains? And since that costs more to them, they up their price. The cheaper options are usually on the top shelves or the bottom shelves. So squat down and look there for the lower-cost cereal, sauce, or crackers.

8 . Look at your expiration dates

All grocery stores should be practicing FIFO shelf stocking (first in, first out); this keeps older items up in front so that they don’t have to throw anything away due to it expiring. So for all items, I grab from the back of the shelf where the newer items are. So it will last longer in my pantry, and I won’t waste it. That being said, not all store employees take the time to FIFO as they should be. So take a few seconds and compare dates.

free saving money printables

9 . Expiration dates – part two

If there’s an item that you need, and you’ll use it all in one sitting (aka for tonight’s recipe), and it will expire within two days, ask a clerk for a discount. Sometimes they’ll say yes and give it to you for free or half off. Sometimes they don’t discount anything as a store policy; then, they’ll say no. But it can’t hurt to ask. I’ve personally given away many near expiration dairy items because stores would rather get goodwill than tell someone no, just to toss it a day later.

10 . Sample it!

Don’t you hate it when you buy something for the first time, take it home and try it, and you HATE it! In the garbage, it goes, and the $5 you paid for it. Many stores will sample items to you; just ask. I have reduced my monthly grocery budget many times by sampling a food item first.

I hate to say it, but when asking store clerks to do something nice for you, it always pays to be especially nice and polite to them. It was astonishing how many abrupt, rude, and snarky people asked for “favors.” If you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you!

11 . Return it!

If you buy something and don’t like it, or it tastes off to you, then absolutely return it. All stores have a return policy, yet many customers don’t use it. (If it’s a bad fruit/veg item, please don’t actually bring it back into the store, just bring your receipt, the store will take care of you, we don’t need you to prove you have a rotten peach). Oh, and don’t think you have to make an extra grocery trip to return it fast. It’s normal to return a food item up to a couple of weeks after purchase.

12 . Shop with a calculator

If you are grocery shopping on a budget, then you should absolutely be adding up your totals on your shopping list as you go through the aisles! Yes, it’s slightly annoying writing down all the prices, but you will spend a lot less this way, guaranteed.

13 . Use your store loyalty card

Yes, it seems that you get only a few points per trip, but they all add up! In addition to earning points, they may offer coupons as well! Double bonus! Some programs even report back to you on your monthly grocery budget and how much you saved by using their app!

14 . Generic & store brand items

Don’t be afraid to try generics; they are probably the exact same as the brand label one to the left of it on the shelf. Go ahead, flip the package over, look at the ingredients; they’re the same. Usually, you can always find the manufacturer in teeny tiny letters on the back of the product; and yes, that’s the same name on the brand label in your other hand!

For generic pain relievers, be sure to look at the “active ingredient” and then the others to make sure they are the same.

15 . Use a handbasket instead of a cart

Now I know this might cause problems, but your brain (and arm) registers that the basket is getting full as you’re shopping. You’ll spend less time in the store and buy less too.

yay!  I remembered my reusable bag!

16 . Dump it!

When you get to the register, make it a habit of giving 1-2 items back to the cashier and tell them you’re not buying it. It’s totally okay to do this, don’t feel bad at all. It happens quite a bit, especially with moms that have kiddos. Just slide us the oreo’s nice & quiet, your four-year-old won’t see you!

17 . Embrace the frozen vegetable

There are some items that, when you buy frozen, are a much better deal. Think about it, how many bags/bunches of spinach do you need to buy that equal the same amount in those frozen bricks? Yup, you’d need maybe three bags of fresh spinach to get the one frozen brick. Besides, frozen veggies are just as nutritious as their fresh counterparts.  

Besides, at certain times of the year (aka out of season), fresh produce is priced at a premium. Frozen produce isn’t subject to those seasonal price hikes.

Harvard Health reports that “Fresh produce can lose half of its vitamins and phytonutrients during storage or cooking. Frozen produce may contain more vitamins and phytonutrients than days-old fresh items, though additional cooking and storage after defrosting may close that gap.”

18 . Don’t buy the precut!

Along the same line as individually packages snacks comes the produce that has already been conveniently cut up for you. The store pays a staff member to stand in the backroom and cut fresh fruit & vegetables all day, and that costs a lot, and you end up paying it! Just stay away.

Cutting your own veggies may take a few minutes, but it will be fresher, and you don’t have the plastic packaging that the precut came in. So you’re saving money and saving the Earth, ya you!

This also goes for meats that have been marinated or the already made crab cakes. You can make your own. It won’t take as long as you think it will.

Sometimes we don’t need a whole watermelon, so the prepackaged looks like a good option. Ask the produce clerk to cut the melon in half for you. They should be able to do that for you easily.

When cutting your fruit & vegetables, look at your meal plan for the week, can you cut it all today and save time? Probably! Take a Sunday afternoon, and do some basic meal prep for your recipes. You’ll be happy you did come Thursday when you’re home late due to crazy traffic!

19 . Scan your receipts

There are so many different ways to save money with your receipts, and it pays to use them, especially a lot of them. Get cashback from ibotta (sign up for $20 in welcome bonuses) for buying an item (earn bonus too), and earn points with fetch on the whole receipt, and why not use Coupons.com to either print manufacturers coupons or use their digital ones with their app.

20 . Use cash

The cash envelope budgeting method is the best thing to happen to budgeters since the beginning of time. It’s literally impossible to overspend if you only bring a certain amount of cash with you. The beauty is in its simplicity, and it’s foolproof! It’s very easy to do, and you can make your own cash envelopes from these templates just to try it out. Or, if you’re all in on this method, you can grab your cash envelope budget planner here!

At the end of the day

Grocery shopping on a budget doesn’t need to be depressing. In fact, saving money at my favorite grocery store makes me feel very accomplished! I love scoring great deals on my grocery list. You don’t need to be an extreme couponer to do it. You just need to know a few tricks, keep your eyes open and be nice to the store clerks 🙂 With these tips & tricks, you’ll be saving tons on your grocery budget, I promise!

saving money free templates

Grocery shopping on a budget isn’t impossible, you just have to know the system, and how to work with it.