Lately I’ve been taking greater care to stay on a grocery budget, and the process has been quite enlightening. Though I never went hog-wild buying cartloads of groceries, I often found myself buying things in advance that we didn’t yet need, or lots of one thing, like fruit, without thinking about how much bread and protein foods we would need later in the week. In other words, I wasn’t planning well, despite having a list.
Here are some tips that helped me:
1. Keep track of the bill as you shop. I kept my list and my cell phone together and entered each item in the phone’s calculator. It’s a pain when the calculator accidentally zeros out on you once in a while, but after entering the prices of everything for a few weeks, I found that I can look at the list and very closely estimate the cost before I shop. If I have 10 things on the list and I know they will come to about $30, I know how to estimate from there if I decide to add ice cream as an impulse purchase — or decide that this week, I really shouldn’t.
2. Know your prices. I know what yogurt, tofu, beans, and even some chips cost at every market where we shop. If there’s a sale on yogurt or canned beans, I’m all over it because that’s two items we eat nearly every day. Be careful about package size — sometimes an item will cost the same amount at Trader Joe’s as it does at Costco, but at Costco you get twice as much. Which is great ONLY if you will consume twice as much. Here’s an example: Costco has 6 heads of conventionally grown baby Romaine lettuce for $2.99 — the price for three organic heads of baby Romaine at Trader Joe’s. I like organic, but when money’s tight, sometimes we do without. If you’re a family of four, it’s 100 degrees outside and you’re eating salad until November, this is awesome. If you live alone and don’t have a herd of pet rabbits, it doesn’t work at all.
3. Keep track of what you spend. Our weekly budget for groceries is $150 (covers 63 meals for we three). I have an Excel sheet divided into four weeks and I enter each receipt to keep track of the week’s total (along with everything else we spend). A simple memo pad where you can jot down the amount for each trip will help you keep track, or you can use the Evernote app. But if you shop in more than one place you need to find somewhere to record what you spent at Ralph’s or Whole Foods before you hit Costco, Walmart or Target and blow the budget completely.
4. Pay cash. Nothing forces you to stick to the budget more than seeing the greenbacks visibly leave your hand.