We spent a year living off an extremely limited income. It was tough: we had to trim our grocery budget in order to pay our rent and bills. That year I learned a valuable skill. I learned how to feed our family good food for much less than what I’d been accustomed to: I was saving $50-$100 per week.
My method is a little counter-intuitive: I don’t buy in bulk or go to a discount supermarket. I read a book called The $21 Challenge and tried it for a week, and it changed the way I think about stocking my pantry. I’ve since refined my method, and while our financial situation is better these days, I still think of it as a personal challenge to keep our grocery spending under control.
Here’s how I keep to a budget:
- I don’t buy in bulk. All the standard advice will tell you to stock up on staple ingredients as it’s supposed to be cheaper that way, but this approach only pushed up my average weekly spend, and filled my cupboards to capacity. I only buy what I need to make the six or seven dinners on my menu for the week. Anyway, who needs ten kilos of flour?!
- I use a menu plan. I have a simple menu planning system using sticky notes and I build my shopping list around that. I never ‘cruise’ the aisles wondering what I’ll cook that week. I always go in with a plan.
- I set myself a budget of $100. When our money was tight, that’s all we really had to spend on food. With a target of $100, it’s easier to make judgements about what you really need to buy. If you see a jar of olive oil for $9 for example, you can ask yourself “do I really want to spend 9% of my food budget on fancy oil?!” We didn’t always reach the $100 target, but often we came close to that figure and that always gave me a thrill as I went through the checkout. (Our family was smaller in those days, which makes a difference.)
- I cook most meals from scratch. I don’t buy shortcuts because they just cost so much more, and they don’t save me much time as I still need to be in the kitchen to put it all together. I also avoid too many gourmet items. For me, eating well is about home-cooked meals where I know exactly what ingredients went into them. Most of the things in my shopping trolley are fresh fruit and vegetables that I know are both healthy for my family and locally produced. However, sometimes I will buy one pre-made item per week to give myself a break during the week. And I always buy good coffee, cheese and chocolate: life is too barren without them!
- I don’t buy junk food. Too many things in packets and jars just means you spend more. Chips, cakes and biscuits are expensive, and they don’t seem to fill my children up like healthy fresh food does. Plus, my children are clever: if they know it’s in the cupboard, they’ll keep asking and asking for it! Sometimes it’s easier to not have that kind of food in the house.
- I go shopping once a week, on payday. When money was tight, if I didn’t do the shopping on payday or the day after, the money would disappear from our account and there’d be none left for food. So I always went shopping when the money was there. Because I don’t buy in bulk, this means that the day before I shop our panty and refrigerator are usually quite bare. But I like knowing that I haven’t wasted too much money on things that didn’t get eaten.
- I try to ‘cook from the cupboard’ once a week. While I like to use fresh ingredients in every meal, I also try to use up what’s in the pantry, freezer and fridge before going shopping for more food. This keeps the clutter in my kitchen under control, and saves me money and time.
If you’d like to try this method, my post about sticky note menu planning is recommended reading before you start.
But I’d like to know your ideas too:
How do you eat well on a budget?