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I love to save money on groceries! I get some kind of crazy thrill out of feeling like I’ve saved a bunch of money on food. Anyone else with me? It’s like a game!
A few months ago I stumbled upon a big clearance section at my local grocery store. There were rows of carts filled with all sorts of top quality baking items; all for at least 75% off! I came home with bags and bags filled with pumpkin puree, olive oil, cinnamon, cake mixes, chocolate chips, canned cherries, and more. I felt like I hit the jackpot! Now I’m all stocked up and ready to bake at a moments notice. This makes me happier than it should!
In my quest to save money on groceries, I’ve been known to pin loads of articles on Pinterest with titles like “How I Save BIG on Groceries” or “Cut $100 a Month off Your Grocery Bill with These 7 Easy Tips!” I feel like I’m pretty adept at crafting a thrifty grocery budget, but I’m always interested in new and helpful tips.
Recently a post caught my eye on Pinterest. This wasn’t the exact title, but it was something like “How I Feed My Family of Four for $35 a Week.” I immediately felt two things when I read that title: disbelief and discouragement.
Do you ever read these posts and articles and think there’s no way the information can live up to the hype of the title? Well, it’s often true. In the case of the $35 a week grocery budget, I found the title was wholly misleading. In fact, the writer makes 3 meals a week on that $35 budget. They’re 3 low cost dinners and every other night they eat the leftovers. Night 7 they eat out. The budget did not include breakfasts, lunches, or snacks. In short, the title was total nonsense.
Those type of posts lead us to feeling discouraged. We cannot possibly feed our families well for $35 or even $50 a week at today’s food costs. There, I said it! Take a deep breath and tell yourself “I’m okay!”
If you’re spending way too much money on food, I know you can do better. But for now, shut out the voices that self righteously proclaim grocery budgets that are not realistic.
Reading post after post filled with grocery budgets that are not even a little bit grounded in reality, I was left asking, “how much does it actually cost to feed a family?” I’ve seen this conversation on Facebook threads time and time again. Many talk their big game of $50 a week for a family of four while others share honestly that they struggle to stat within their $150 a week budgets. Many who live in cities and places that are expensive will say things like “I WISH I could feed my family for $150 a week!”
Comparison… it’s a dangerous game. Or if not dangerous, then certainly unhelpful. We don’t know what government assistance someone is receiving to be able to spend very little on groceries. We don’t know how many times a week someone is eating out. We don’t know if someone is including in their budget what they spend on school lunches. We don’t even know if someone isn’t being 100% truthful about their grocery budgets.
So, let’s have some real talk, shall we?
HOW MUCH DOES IT ACTUALLY COST TO FEED A FAMILY
The USDA provides a very helpful guideline for calculating a reasonable food budget. The most recent Cost of Food at Home at Four Levels report is from February 2017 (at the time that I write this) and it tells us that a family of 4 on a very thrifty plan would spend about $638.10 a month on groceries. Feel free to argue with this all you want; but these are real statistics.
A liberal cost plan for a family of 4 would be $1272.80 a month.
These numbers do of course depend on age and gender of family members, so you can use the chart to calculate your own family budget.
A REASONABLE MEAL PLAN AND GROCERY LIST
Today I sat down at my computer on a whim and decided to create a reasonable meal plan and grocery list, just to see how much it would cost. My basic presupposition is that this plan is for a family of 5 for one week. For the sake of the project, I imagined the family to be made up of 2 parents, 1 teenager, 1 grade school age child, and 1 preschool age child.
Other key guidelines for the project:
- I assumed at least 5 regular size servings for each meal.
- There are no repeated meals and no leftovers assumed.
- I listed some alternate food options, but did not include them in the budget. They are inexpensive meal or snack options in case you want to switch out any of the planned meals.
- I budgeted for 7 breakfasts, 7 lunches, 7 dinners, and a variety of snack options.
- I did not include juice or soft drinks.
- I tried to include a fresh salad several times during the week as well as fresh fruits and vegetables every day.
- I live in Ohio where groceries are generally pretty reasonably priced. If you live in an area where food is expensive, you’ll have to adjust the prices.
- I shop mostly at Aldi. I like to buy meat, produce, and items on sale at Kroger. The prices below are based on the most recent prices at these two stores. Some prices are sale prices, others are regular prices.
Here’s the meal plan I came up with:
Here are some of the recipes used in this meal plan:
- Chicken Packets – I used 2 tubes of crescent rolls to make 8 packets, use day old bread to make homemade croutons, and leave out the pimentos.
- Kielbasa and Potato Skillet
- Banana Bread
- Chicken and Dumplings
- Banana Oat Chocolate Chip Cookies
- Peanut Butter Cookies
Here is the shopping list I created based on the above meal plan:
The total for this meal plan is $142.27.
Now, another thing we need to consider is pantry staple items that would be used to make the meals above. I estimated the cost of the ingredients that would be used and created a pantry replenish budget:
1 packet yeast $.33
Pancake syrup $.50
6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour $1.08
5 tablespoons olive oil $.40
2 tsp salt
½ package semi-sweet chocolate chips $1.00
2 ¼ cup + 1 TBSP sugar $.45
Cornmeal for dusting
Salad dressing $.99
2 sleeves crackers $1.00
1 tsp baking soda
3 ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp vanilla
1/3 cup bbq sauce $.20
1 chicken bouillon cube $.20
2 cups peanut butter $1.00
½ cup grape jelly $.20
2 cups rice $.20
2 cups rolled oats $.40
=$7.95 pantry replenish
The complete one week total is $150.22 That means $30.04 per person for 7 breakfasts, 7 lunches, 7 snacks, and 7 dinners. Not too bad!
The total grocery bill would come to $600.88 a month. Now, when I created this meal plan I had not yet looked at the USDA guidelines I mentioned above. So I was pretty surprised that I came in below the recommended budget for a family of 5. Based on the children’s ages I assumed, the weekly thrifty budget would be $188.10, or $752.40 a month. In higher cost places in the US, this sounds about right.
Food Tips for This Menu:
- A rotisserie chicken is a great for having cooked chicken to make recipes such as the chicken packets. It’s cooked and seasoned and ready to be shredded and used in the recipe.
- To make canned or frozen vetetables taste good, I drain off all liquid then cook them in a pan on the stove with a tablespoon of butter. Cook them over medium heat for at least 10 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste before serving.
- Before shopping, I check my local Kroger ad and write down a list of items I need and their sale prices. I then shop at Aldi and if I find the item cheaper, I buy it there. I do love Kroger’s quality and selection, so I end up there after shopping for the basics at Aldi.
CUT THE NONSENSE AND BUDGET WISELY
Be careful when comparing your budget to others. You may be comparing apples to oranges! Sometimes articles that tout an extreme budget can be a bit misleading. A few years ago I saw a blog post about how a family lives well on something like $12,000 a year. I immediately felt shame because I must be doing something wrong that I couldn’t imagine living on that little. Once I opened up the post it all made sense. The family was living with a relative at no cost, did not have internet or TV, had one pre-paid cell phone, shared one car, and basically didn’t go anywhere or do anything other than church and the library. I’ve been through some pretty tough financial times that sound a lot like the above. I’d prefer to give you advice for getting out of that kind of a situation rather than staying there.
I also recall a Facebook conversation where someone I don’t know talked about her $45 a week grocery budget. Eventually the truth came out: they were on WIC, 1 child was receiving free school lunches, the other child was a breastfeeding baby, they only ate meat they hunted, and a relative was giving them some extra groceries every month. This kind of help is so wonderful for those low income families who need it. I 100% support those who need and use food assistance! However, this kind of budget is not comparable to a typical middle class family not receiving any kind of help. If you want to cut grocery expenses, you need to start with a realistic budget that is actually achievable.
WHAT DOES A $50 A WEEK GROCERY BUDGET LOOK LIKE?
So, just for conversation sake, what does a $50 a week food budget look like? We all go through tough seasons when money is tight. I thought I would create a $50 7 day grocery list. I kept to the same rules as the previous budget, except it was impossible to not repeat meals. Check it out:
Bare-Bones Grocery Budget and Meal Plan
- Spaghetti with marinara, green beans
- Rice and black beans
- Grilled cheese, carrots
- Tuna with crackers, apple
- Canned chicken noodle soup, crackers
- Macaroni and cheese
- Sloppy Joes, potato chips
Lunch: PB&J, chips, orange or banana (every day)
- Scrambled eggs & toast (3 days)
- Oatmeal with brown sugar (4 days)
- String cheese
5 lb bananas $2.75
5 lbs apples $3.95
3 lbs mandarin oranges $3.99
1 pound ground beef $3.99
2 cans tuna $1.98
2 loaves bread $1.58
1 package hamburger buns $.99
1 box spaghetti $.49
1 jar pasta sauce $1.19
4 cans green beans $1.96
1 container rolled oats $1.99
3 cans chicken noodle soup $2.37
3 boxes macaroni and cheese $2.97
2 cans black beans $.98
Sloppy joe mix $.69
1 jar peanut butter $1.99
2 packages sliced American cheese $2.58
1 package string cheese $1.99
1 gallon milk $1.49
1 pound butter $1.99
3 bags potato chips $2.97
1 box crackers $1.99
2 dozen eggs $1.58
2 cups rice $.20
2 cups grape jelly $1.00
=$1.45 pantry replenish
TOTAL: $49.90 a week or $199.60 a month
This wouldn’t be easy to stick with and not very healthy, but again, if you don’t have the money to spend on food for a period of time, then you just have to make everything stretch.
This meal plan includes a lot of canned and boxed foods. I would probably prefer to make a big pot of cheap vegetable soup and serve it twice during the week. Homemade bread or tortillas might be a nice addition to this plan as well.
If you find yourself having to live on such a tight grocery budget for very long, I would recommend looking for ways to increase your income so you can feed your family more fresh foods on a regular basis.
LOW COST FOOD IDEAS
Save seeds from fruits and vegetables, then plant a garden (or find places online that will send free seeds). Learn to preserve the produce through canning, freezing, and dehydrating. (Check out this how to guide for saving seeds)
Keep a bag of vegetable scraps in the freezer. Use them to make vegetable broth. Add vegetables and some rice or barley to the broth for a very inexpensive vegetable soup.
Keep chickens for eggs and meat. Sell extra eggs and chicken to help pay for the expense of keeping chickens.
Make your own bread.
Buy meat in bulk and freeze.
Participate in a community garden.
Buy food in bulk. You may want to split with a friend.
Plan meals ahead of time based on that weeks’ sales, coupons, and seasonal items.
Shop “bent and dent” stores and food outlets.
Stock up during good sales. I recently found pasta on sale at my local Kroger for $.49 a box, so I filled my pantry! Last week apples were $.79 a pound and I bought as much as I thought we could use within the next could of weeks.
Get a part time job at your local grocery store to benefit from the employee discount.
Hunt your own meat.
Shop at local farmers markets.
Buy fresh, local produce through a buyer’s co-op.
Meat is expensive. Go vegetarian as often as possible.
TIP: I find that early November is a great time to stock up on items for the pantry as grocery stores have great sales leading up to Thanksgiving.
How do you save money on groceries? What does your total food budget look like (including eating out, all food sources, school meals, etc.). Have a cheap recipe that you love? Share in the comments!