Maybe Matilda: How I Keep My Grocery Bill Under Control

Monday, June 25, 2012

How I Keep My Grocery Bill Under Control

I’m taking a momentary pause from home renovations for a grocery post. HOW THRILLING! I mentioned recently that I try to keep my weekly grocery bill under $60, and got a few questions (okay, fine, just one question, geez) about how I keep that number low. And I am nothing if not a giver-slash-overtalker, so I thought about it and identified a few things I do that help out with our grocery budget.

First of all, I’ll eliminate the obvious answer: I have absolutely zero interest in couponing and sale-shopping at the grocery store. I hate the idea of planning my meals around what happens to be on sale that week and driving from one store to another to pick up just 4 sale items at each location and spending hours clipping and organizing coupons. And I know someone is going to comment and tell me how simple and easy and fun!fun!fun! couponing/sale-shopping can be, but I’m sorry. No interest whatsoever. Maybe someday I’ll try that route, but for now, here is my coupon-less, sale-less grocery shopping method. There are probably a zillion other, better tips/tricks out there; this is just what I do and have had success with.

  • I always make a menu. For me, not making a menu = spending my life savings at the store as I just pick up whatever looks good and might work for a meal. I spend about 30 minutes a week and plan out 5 days’ worth of dinners (we usually end up with leftovers for a night or two, and/or grab a pizza or fast food on occasion for dinner; I don’t plan out breakfasts [they are always the same] or lunches [always leftovers or sandwiches]). Just as an example, this was my menu from last week:

1. Cajun Chicken Pasta with Candied Carrots

2. Thai Curry with Naan

3. BLT Soup with Baked Mozzarella Sticks

4. Buttermilk Blueberry Breakfast Cake with scrambled eggs and fruit

5. Chipotle Chicken Salad

I don’t plan my menu around sales/coupons—I just choose whatever I think looks tasty and fun to make and budget-friendly. That means trying to use up items I already have in my fridge/freezer before they go bad (for instance, half a bag of spinach about to wilt might mean veggie lasagna for dinner one night), sticking to seasonal produce, and only including one or two ‘splurge’ dishes in the menu (splurge dishes meaning something with a pricey meat, or an unusually long ingredient list, or an ingredient that I expect to be hard to find and/or expensive).

  • I always make a shopping list. Heading to the store sans shopping list is a surefire way for me to overspend on food. As I’m making my menu for the week, I just jot down a list of what I need to buy for each recipe and bring it with me to the store the next day. But the whole point of making the list is sticking to what’s on the list and only what’s on the list. I like to organize my shopping list by aisle/section of the store so I don’t skip anything:

(image/grocery list printable from The Letter 4)

Sticking to the list, for me, includes not shopping while I (or Forrest) am hungry—that’s just begging for disaster to strike. And I’ve learned that I can’t shop with my husband, either . . . he always talks me into all sorts of extra items (frozen egg rolls! pop tarts! fish sticks!) that we don’t need, so he is no longer allowed to come shopping with me. I doubt he misses it.

  • I identified the most expensive items on my receipts and tried to get rid of them. Simple enough, right? I noticed over weeks and months and years of grocery shopping that the same items were consistently pushing the bill higher than it needed to be: meat, cereal, and snacks. So I stopped buying most of them.


    • I don’t buy much meat. Not really because of health/ethical reasons, but because I was spending way too much money on it. And I don’t love meat-based dishes, either—I’d much rather eat a pasta dish with a few chicken strips mixed in than just a straight chicken breast, for instance—so I tend to choose recipes for my menu that have meat as a component of the whole dish and not the main attraction. I haven’t cut out meat—I just choose recipes that use meat and don’t consist entirely of meat. We never have steak for dinner, for example, but we might have a stir-fry that includes steak. And this will probably get stickler cooks’ panties in a bunch, but I often use only half the amount of meat my recipes call for, and no one has seemed to notice or care so far (for instance, in my beef stir-fry example, I would use 1/2 pound steak if the recipe called for 1 pound, and add extra veggies to make up the difference). This really saves us a lot of money, and the meat that I do buy lasts so much longer when it isn’t the star of every meal.


    • I don’t buy cereal. At all. Jeff and I used to eat cereal for breakfast, as an afternoon snack, as a pre-bedtime snack, for dinner when I didn’t feel like cooking . . . we bought probably 3+ boxes of cereal each week, and cereal isn’t cheap. So I just stopped buying it altogether—it’s probably been 2 years since I bought cereal--and we haven’t missed it. I used to spend probably $10/week on cereal, if not more, so that’s at least $40/month that is staying in my pocket now. For breakfast, Forrest and I usually have toast with eggs or yogurt, and Jeff has protein smoothies (Big Mister Muscle Man). It was rather shocking for us to discover there are other breakfast options besides cereal. Who knew?


    • I rarely buy snack foods. Forrest would probably complain about this—he loves Teddy Grahams and crackers and granola bars—but that snack aisle is SO expensive, I don’t even walk down it anymore. Even just 2 or 3 items from the snack aisle will tack on another $10-ish to our bill. For snacks, we always have yogurt and fruit and raisins in the house, and I like baking so we almost always have something homemade to snack on (homemade muffins, cookies, quick bread, etc.) and there is nothing in the world Forrest loves more than homemade baked goods, so I think he’s doing just fine without the toddler requisites of Goldfish and Cheerios. When I do buy snacks, I buy the cheapest store-brand ones (graham crackers, saltines, etc.). Everyone seems to be coping all right and I’m sure that with time and some therapy, we’ll all be able to deal with the loss of our precious snack foods.
  • If I can make something myself, I do. This is a tip that might not be very practical if you are extremely busy and don’t have much extra time to spend cooking/baking (or if you just plain dislike cooking/baking!), but I save a good amount of money by making most things myself. And since I’m a stay-at-home mom of only one child who is pretty good at entertaining himself while I’m cooking, it’s not a big deal for me to make most things instead of buying them. If we’re having pizza for dinner, I make it myself instead of buying one frozen or ordering it. And since we’re having pizza, I make the crust (which costs something like 20 cents instead of $3 to buy a refrigerated premade package  of dough at the store). If I want muffins/cookies/brownies/cake/whatever, I make it instead of buying a box mix or picking it up premade at the store. In my opinion, just about everything tastes better homemade, plus it’s usually healthier and less expensive. I don’t make everything myself, but if it seems reasonable and easy and less expensive to make my own version rather than buying it, that’s what I do.

One of my favorite homemade items is fresh bread. If you had asked me even just a year ago if I would ever consistently make homemade bread instead of purchasing it, I would have laughed long and hard. It just seems so pioneer-ish, and like way too much work for a few dollars of savings each week. But I’ve been making all of our bread for about 6 months, and we all love it. Thanks to the Kitchenaid I got for Christmas, the whole mixing/kneading process couldn’t be easier/faster, so it really doesn’t take much effort for me to make it. I love this recipe for wheat bread and have been making it weekly for months—it doesn’t have the dry, crumbly texture that a lot of wheat breads tend to have, so it’s perfect for sandwiches and toast and whatever other spreading needs you might have that many wheat breads can’t stand up to. I have never been able to find white wheat flour, which the recipe calls for, so I just use 3 cups wheat flour and 3 cups white flour instead. And I ran out of vital wheat gluten a few weeks ago and have been making it without it and getting identical results, so you probably don’t need to panic if you can’t find that, either. The recipe makes 2 loaves, so I just slice them both up and stick one in the freezer, so there’s always a backup. Making my own bread probably isn’t a huge money-saver—maybe $3 per week?—but even $3 per week adds up over time, and we all really prefer the taste of homemade bread, so it’s a win-win.

So, there you have it. For me, it boils down to planning in advance (knowing what I’ll be cooking that week and what I’ll need for it) and eliminating any extras (we don’t need ice cream and Oreos and potato chips, so I [usually] don’t buy them). I can’t say it always works—of course I have weeks when I spend more than I intended, or can’t imagine my life going on without a bag of Red Vines in my future, or I cave and buy a box of Teddy Grahams to keep Forrest happy in the shopping cart—but for the majority of the time, I manage to spend something like $50-60 per week on groceries and I would say we all really enjoy what we’re eating.

Do you have any money-saving grocery tips to add?


  1. I can't get past the no cereal thing. :P Seriously? No cereal?

    We do just about everything you listed (minus the cereal). It's those junk food aisles that get you.

    We are meat people though. We split a cow with Nate's family so our beef bill is quite low and it's just a one time shelling out of cash a year.

    Yay for low grocery bills!

  2. Great post! I try to keep mine at $60 too, at least while we live in an area of the country with low prices!

    I like to make a meal that will last a while. Last week I made veggie enchiladas... and while they weren't really hubby's cup of tea, I probably ate them for 5 meals. I have a huge pork loin in the slow cooker right now. It cost $18 but will feed us (and friends) multiple meals, and it's easy since we're moving this week... no effort, and no fast food! I do the same with lasagna, soup, roast chicken (leftovers into quesadillas, soups, etc).

    It's getting harder though, because I am more conscious of food processing/ origin. I'd prefer organic, dairy without hormones, etc but that makes it harder. I do shell out what equates to $20/week in the summer to join a local CSA. The huge weekly share of veggies keeps grocery store costs down, and while it's a bit expensive, it also introduces more veggies into our diet and supports local farming.

  3. Seriously, my tips are almost identical to yours. We're vegetarian, we don't buy cereal (we eat oatmeal and eggs), I don't buy packaged snacks, I make all our bread (even with that same recipe - and if you're curious, I don't have white wheat flour, either, and just do all regular whole wheat and it's always fine). I menu plan and make a decent amount from scratch. Basically, we should be friends. :)

  4. Hmm, I don't coupon, but I do shop sales. But, it's more, when chicken is $2 a pound, I pick up as many packages as I can fit into the deep freezer, and then plan meals around that. Our deep freezer isn't HUGE, so it won't be a terrible loss if the power goes out. Also, I tend to cook double meals and toss the extra in the freezer in order to use up a certain fresh veggie or something.

    I wish I could untrain the cereal boy! We've been in a hotel with fresh breakfast for a month, and he still eats cereal every morning. Sheesh. Maybe if I put chocolate chips in his pancakes...

    What bread pan do you use? My people complain about bread that isn't sandwich-bread-shaped.

  5. I love this post (and that you don't do coupons - I just can't deal them either).

    So glad you've liked that bread recipe. I tried a new one this last week and it was not a winner. Going right back to the old tried and true one.

  6. Great ideas! I've tried multiple times to scrap the cereal but it's SO DANG EASY in the morning. Making eggs or hot cereal…not so much.

  7. Thanks for this post! I may have to heed your advice on the cereal/snack aisle. Our bill is always a little too high for my comfort, and that is probably the culprit. Great ideas!

  8. very nice!
    We spend 250-300 (that includes personal hygiene and household items), BUT we're a family of 8! lol
    I don't buy many processed foods, once in awhile I get some kind of snack item, but 99% of our groceries are fruits, veggies, nuts, and meats. The perimeter of the grocery aisles lol, I rarely go in the center aisles. No cereals for us either! Sometimes I get rolled oats. Our breakfast is usually an egg, some fruit, and nuts.

  9. Now that you have a yard next year you'll be telling us you only spend $30 because you have a kick butt garden too! ;D
    We do most of the things that you do, but my husband is a BIG meat eater, and that kinda throws our bill overboard a bit. But it's the stinkin diapers that kill me every. single. time! Somebody around here needs to get their tush potty trained ASAP, and unfortunately it's more likely to be the 2 month old than the 2 year old.

  10. I love this post. I've never been one to use coupons... It just seems so dang annoying. We're tight on money though so I've been contemplating it, but I like these ideas better! I really like the printable shopping list. Last time I was at the grocery store I went back to the produce about three times because I kept forgetting stuff. For me making a menu and keeping my husband out of the grocery store helps a ton!

  11. I don't remember when or why I started following your blog, but I have for a while and I love it. These are some great ideas for keeping grocery bills low. I definitely need improvement and I'm excited to try a menu plan to see how much this helps. I am not much for coupons, I don't have the time or energy, so I appreciate the tips on how to keep spending down without having to coupon. Thank you!

  12. These are great tips. Snacks were something that was adding up for us - Cheese Its and Oreos sustained me through pregnancy. (So healthy.) But I wasn't willing to give them up cold turkey. So, we actually started buying the cheapo generics at Aldi and don't notice the difference. It's a huge savings, too. Shopping at Aldi has been the biggest way we keep grocery costs low. I'm truly amazed at the difference in a cart of food there.

  13. Thanks for the tips! I need all the help I can get :)

  14. Wow, well, the crux of it could be the time factor. I looked at a box of brownies I wanted to make for my co-workers for helping me with work all weekend, but ended up not having time to make it. And that's just shameful - it's a freakin box o brownies.

    We do the CSA, and less meat, limited snacks, but I've got this hipster husband who just can't go without his super crunchy granola Quaker Oats fancy schmancy cereal.

    Good tips though - Maybe I'll try the menu planning thing...again, and see if it works out better this time. I love the grocery list!

  15. UGH I HATE COUPONS. Big time.

    And another comment on your cereal statement. :) When I was pregnant with Darbi I lived on (free) WIC cereal. And Roast Beef sandwiches from Arby's (I got those free too...) I saved a lot on groceries back then.

    I made that Blueberry cakey crumbly yummy thing tonight for dinner and OOHHHHHHMYYYYGOOOSHHHHHH. I want to put Huckleberries in it next time.

    I think we need to have another "Red Robin" catch up event but we should relocate to Culver's sometime.

  16. I never buy ready made meals and hardly buy snacks. Ah and no sodas... Just water for us. I also make pizza from scratch try sullivan's recipe... It's great

  17. Great tips! When I sit down to plan meals and make a list, I can keep my groceries at about $125, but that's with 3 bottomless pit teenagers in the house!

    2 of them are pretty picky eaters and truly believe they would die without cereal - so we go through a giant bag of the cheap cereal and about 5 gallons of milk a week.

    We also have at least 1 meat centered meal a week.

    I really want to make my own bread but haven't been able to justify the time that goes into it for the cost savings when I work a full time job plus a side job during my "down time"... I have to place high value on my time and buying a $2 loaf of bread is worth having time to relax!

  18. That was a super helpful....and! Thanks. Now, how do you get your bread sliced so nicely....and your crust looks soft, not that the recipe or do you do something differently?


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