Most of us have a love-hate relationship with the grocery store. Some coupon-savvy families squeak by on less than $300 a month, while others jam-pack their carts to the tune of $300 a week.
So who’s right?
It depends. We recommend spending 5–15% of your take-home pay on food, which includes groceries and meals out. But even if your food budget falls within that healthy range, maybe you’d still like to see it come down a few notches. Check out these five easy ways to change your grocery shopping habits for the better—without clipping coupons.
1. Redefine Dinner
If the word dinner conjures up a big homemade meal with a nice cut of meat, two steaming sides, a crusty French loaf and a chocolaty finish, cut yourself some slack! This isn’t the 1950s and weeknight suppers don’t have to be a big production.
Your kids and spouse will survive on BLTs, omelets or a nice salad several times a week. So don’t be afraid to plan simple, one-item-only meals. Reduce your guilt and your budget by redefining the most expensive meal of the day.
2. Buy the Store Brands Already!
You know generic pasta is cheaper, but you’re still not convinced it won’t ruin your great-grandmother’s lasagna recipe. In a 2009 Consumer Reports study, 29 brand-name foods went up against their generic counterparts. Of the 29 pairings, 19 scored “equally good” in the blind taste test. In other words, your less-expensive lasagna will taste just as delicious.
Still not sold? According to a 2014 academic study, when chefs bought staples like salt, sugar and baking soda, they were much more likely to buy the generic than were non-chefs. And they’re the food experts! The study concluded that if more of us purchased store brands, we could save roughly $44 billion collectively. It pays to be brand un-loyal.
3. Change Up Your Grocery Stores
What made you pick your current grocery store? Is it the friendliest? How about the most convenient? Maybe you just know where everything is? Don’t let a comfortable routine cost you money. You may even find that two grocery stores are your best bet—one for meats and bulk items and another for everything else.
If you’re still not sure which grocery stores are worth checking into, ask around. People love talking about getting a good deal, and the ones who are getting the best deals will gladly gush about their favorite spots. Figuring out a new grocery store may be frustrating at first, but it’s worth learning a new layout to keep that extra $20 in your wallet.
4. Make a Detailed List
A list is simply a plan. You must plan out what you’ll make for breakfasts, lunches and dinners for the next week and then write out each ingredient you’ll need for those meals (plus a few snacks, of course).
When you arrive at the store, remember to buy only what’s on your list. This is key to staying on budget! And if you go shopping as a family, let your kids help plan the meals on the front end so they know this trip isn’t a junk food free-for-all. It’s much easier to stay on budget when you’re shopping with a plan and working as a team.
5. Always Use Cash
The best way to stick to a lower food budget is to pay with cash. When you enter the grocery store with cash in hand, you know exactly how much you can spend. Plus, you’ll stick to the meat-and-potatoes necessities of your budget rather than your ice cream-and-cookie impulse buys.
If you still find you’re eating high on the hog at the beginning of the month and then scraping by on tuna fish by the end, make a cash run every two weeks, instead of every month. This way, you’ll have a better picture of how much you can actually afford to spend each week, versus for the entire month.
Better Habits, Better Budget
By simply starting a few new habits, you can lower your monthly food budget and meet your money goals even faster. That means more cash to pay down debts, invest for the future, or save up for something fun—like a babysitter and a nice meal out where someone else cooks and cleans up.