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Budgeting is so empowering! I know we don’t all love it. Money and food can be so stressful. But knowing numbers and how to food shop on a budget, the budget YOU have can bring such peace and security. So I LOVE talking about it.
Everyone’s budget is different. Some people are trying to stretch a budget to put food on the table, others are budgeting for certain values, others don’t actually need to budget at all. These are principles to help you do the best with what you have, personally they have helped us spend (well) below the average amount where we’ve lived. It’s not easy to do, and there’s no one size fits all. These are not keys that keep spending on budget with no work, but with work a lot is possible.
How these principles have helped us
Grocery spending was a huge pain point every week and month for a long time, thinking we were continually overspending. Sitting down to look at numbers we felt guilt, shame, frustration and didn’t communicate well.
But we were doing none of the below, including not doing the first thing on the list, which is actually really common. These are the core of how we lived in an average (food spending wise) American county but spent in the USDA’s lowest or “thrifty” category for years. Then in coming to England the numbers are less specifically broken down but again, we eat on or below the average for our family size while eating organic, local, and as eco friendly as we can.
In both places, we haven’t had access to any wildly cheap shops, but it’s learning to follow these guidelines, and practicing and paying attention that’s shown us it really is possible. Easy? No, it takes work. But possible to learn to maximise our budgets? Yes.
Here are a few guiding principles and thoughts to help you!
1. HAVE A BUDGET + TRACK SPENDING!
Yes, to stick to a budget you have a food budget. A lot of people don’t have a number that’s really strategic for them. We all need to plan out a number that fits within our wider income and spending. You need to decide what it includes. For example does it include food eaten out? (Is there room to eat out?) Does it include coffee?
It’s surprising how many people think they need to spend less but don’t know how much they can spend or how much less they need to spend. You need a clearly defined budget to be able to stick to one. If you normally use a card to pay you might want to draw cash for the week or month so you can hold yourself to it and actually see it.
If you don’t use a cash system, keep and track all your receipts so you can see how you’re doing. Then you can adjust as needed. If we don’t know how much we’re spending in relation to a budget until the end of the month it’s much harder to spend on track. Have your number, track everything and then you’re powerful to adjust.
Helpful national figures for average US food spending
Helpful national figures for average UK food spending
2. MAKE A MEAL PLAN!
It can feel like it takes time to make a meal plan but actually it’s just a redistribution of time. Have you stood in front of the cupboards wondering what to make? Or wondered what you can afford? I love a meal plan for removing that and keeping things simple. It helps you save time AND money in SO many different ways. When you know what’s coming up you can do things like soaking beans from dry, which is cheaper than buying a can of beans. You can fully use everything you’ve bought when you make a plan. And you can make sure that you shop for things that will keep your meals on budget.
This is an explanation of how I use my monthly budget to keep each meal on track and break my budget down for each day – I practise that really helps!
3. SHOP FOR THE PLAN ONLY!
A plan and a budget mean nothing if they don’t dictate really careful shopping. When I’ve made my meal plan, I write my shopping list ensuring everything I’d be buying is going to get used. If needed, I adjust the plan as I write my shopping list. And then… stick to your plan as you shop.
Don’t off road from the list unless you know where you’ll use something and how it fits in your budget. Otherwise you’re buying extra food and something won’t get used! Shopping with a plan also saves countless last minute trips to the store, so once again, your time. It might take you a tad more time initially but you’ll make it up within days with the time you save each day.
4. TRY THE MOVE TOWARDS NO SNACKING.
This is never a popular opinion but it only gets 100% positive feedback when people try it! There are a few reasons we avoid snacking and only eat meals. Snack foods on the whole are more expensive and if you have kids, they are a drain on time to constantly get or make. But aside from that, when we snack, everyone comes to the table less hungry. That equals being more picky. And if anyone knows they can snack again later, they’re less inclined to eat what they’re giving which can cause waste. If one of us hasn’t been with the kids during the day, we can still instantly tell if they’ve snacked or not by how they eat dinner. I’ve seen many meals where the kids say “I don’t like it” if they’ve snacked, but they gobble it up if they come to the table hungry. It’s well worth a try.
Snacks typically mean trading the lower cost real meal foods, for more pricey snack foods around meals.
5. SHOP WITH YOUR MEAL PLAN AND LIST
This way you can adjust your meal plan as you shop according to what sales you find. If I see something on offer I look at how we could switch the meal plan to incorporate it and bring the overall cost down. I look at what I could take off to include that thing. If I only have the list I can’t take advantage well of sales or offers in an informed way.
6. DISCOVER CLEARANCE + WASTE FOOD OPTIONS LOCALLY
A lot of shops have a waste food option. Maybe at a certain time of the week, or a specific shelf. These can be really useful for saving a bit. Also look at options like Olio for sharing unwanted food between neighbours and Too Good To Go for picking up unwanted food from shops and restaurants. Both are available in many countries and can be really useful for saving a bit here and there or a lot regularly.
7. KNOW THE COST OF EVERYTHING YOU BUY
Do you know the rough cost of everything you buy? Lots of people don’t, but it informs our shopping SO much. It helps me quickly calculate the cost of every meal, or shop around for the best options. It will also help you as you go forward to build your meal plans with an awareness of which meals cost more so you can balance your weekly plan better. This is the tool I use to help me with that. We need to be able to assess the cost of the meals we plan. That way we can add in the less pricey meals more, and space out the more pricey ones. Or find ways to adjust them to fit better.
8. DO A FRIDGE CHECK EVERY FEW DAYS!
Ever found a mouldy onion at the bottom of your fridge? I’m guilty too. But doing an assessment of my fridge every few days really helps me see what needs to be used and what I’ve missed and make sure I use it. It helps me see what I’m buying that I’m not fully using – and adjust the meal plan/shopping list. The average amount of waste per household has shocking figures in the US and the UK especially as the majority of people think they spend too much on food – a lot of us don’t need to work on spending less as much as first working on wasting less. That way we’ll automatically spend less.
9. BE OK WITH LEFTOVERS AND “STRANGE MEALS”
Or at least once in a while. As you do that fridge check there might not be all the ingredients for “XYZ casserole” or a recipe with a name, or for everyone to eat the same meal. But it’s ok for different people at the table to eat different things, or to throw a not normal topping on a pizza or stir some leftover pesto pasta into the meat layer of lasagne to use it up! Have a list of meals that use up leftovers well – for me I make blended soups, throw veggies in pasta sauce, little bits of leftover meat on pizza. I leave spaces for “leftovers” meals in the meal plan to force us to do this. (But I also have a jar of cheap pasta and sauce in the cupboard in case there truly are no leftovers.)
10. BUY IN BULK IF YOU CAN
If you have the cash flow to buy certain ingredients in bulk it can really make a difference. For example, I buy a 50lb bag of flour and the cost goes down by about 30% which massively adds up. All my bread, pizza bases etc now cost a third less. Where you live will depend what’s possible but if you have a spare minute ask or look around for ways to do this. Even buying a larger jar of jam or the slightly larger pasta box can make a difference to price. Make sure you don’t do this and then eat it faster than fits in your plan/budget!
11. TALK TO YOUR PEOPLE
Firstly, talk to the other people you shop with or for and all be on the same page. It’s really hard to be alone in budgeting, or to have people eat from your fridge in a way that doesn’t fit with the meal plan or the way you shopped. You might also be buying something thinking they want it when they really don’t – or when a conversation could get you to a much cheaper option quickly!
12. IF YOU HAVE KIDS, YOU ARE NOT VICTIM TO THEIR (FRUIT) PREFERENCES!
This gets it’s own point because it’s one of the most common things I hear parents say about food budgeting!
“My kids eat a punnet of strawberries a day – it’s so expensive!” “I’m spending so much on grapes, my kids demolish them as soon as I buy them.”
If you can’t afford to eat a certain way in your house, it’s ok for the person doing the budget to explain how the budgeting works, and how food needs to be distributed between days… and when we’re done with berries for the day.
When kids are old enough (which is actually quite young!) they can weigh in on small choices about how food budget is spent and managed to help them understand. But whoever is making the budget work, gets to make calls on how food is eaten – otherwise it’s impossible!
We say “Yes we do have more _____ in the house, but it’s not available for today cos we need it for a different meal!” or “That was so yummy, we’re going to eat something different now, those aren’t budgeted in for today.” Or “We want to save some of that for another day, so we’re going to enjoy this much but no more.”
13. COOK SOMETHING FROM SCRATCH!
This can in places really help the budget – depending on how you eat. Maybe choose one thing like bread or making beans from dry, or pizza. For me I started with the most expensive things to buy. I make sourdough weekly, and it cuts the cost of our bread by about 75%+. A massive saving for a quality food item. (I make the Country Bread recipe from the Tartine Cookbook for bread and pizza.)
14. BE OK GOING WITHOUT!
This is maybe the hardest one for some people, food is emotional and it’s more than just making a different choice. It’s also kind of the easiest that takes no time at all! If you’re needing to reduce your spending in the area of groceries, see if there’s anything you can take out. I don’t mean something you fully don’t need or want – those shouldn’t be there anyway! I mean the things you don’t want to let go of but really could let go of, for the sake of budget.
Which is more important, the loved item or a hitting budget? There’s not a right answer but, it’s a good question to ask yourself. The fancy granola – could it be simple oatmeal? The berries – could they be apples? The fancy nut butter – could it be cheaper peanut or sunflower seed butter?
It’s all an ongoing journey of practice and learning! Pick something you can implement today and take it on in your life. Then keep reassessing. It takes work, but if you want to get the most from your budget or spend less it really is worth it. We should all be budgeting whether it’s a need or doesn’t feel like a need. Money is powerful, and I truly believe in using it intentionally, wisely, and only using what we need. So let’s budget and budget well for our health, people and planet, and to do good!
OTHER POSTS YOU MIGHT ENJOY + HELPFUL LINKS:
Our go to weekly veg box (15% off your 1st and 4th boxes) – UK delivery
My top US option for bulk flour, grains, and well priced organic simple staples (that we used to use) – Azure Standard
My Top US option (that we used) for nationwide delivery on speciality staples like organic ketchup, fairtrade cocoa, biodynamic wines, and pantry staples.
UK Fresh Food + Grocery Deliveries: 4 nationwide favourites compared
Spending on Budget every day: A simple tip + free tool