Overspending on Groceries? Me Too—Here’s What I’m Changing to Stick to My Budget

Raise your hand if you’ve ever gone grocery shopping, realized you went over budget, and then returned home and felt like you still didn’t have what you need for your weekly meals? My hand is raised too.

There have been countless times I’ve gone to the grocery store, tossed in a bagged salad, ground beef, some red onions, and pistachios thinking hmmm, I’m sure I’ll find something to make with that this week. Oh, can’t forget the little pretzels filled with peanut butter. Yes, this has happened to me more times than I’d like to admit.

I’ve always loved grocery shopping. Growing up, my mom would always make me tag along going from grocery store to grocery store trying to get the best deals on food for a family of six. Sometimes I was annoyed that I couldn’t keep watching TV at home, but looking back, these trips with my mom are where my love of food and cooking began. Plus, I always got to pick out a few things for myself as a thank you for helping her.


Raise your hand if you’ve ever gone grocery shopping, realized you went over budget, and then returned home and felt like you still didn’t have what you need for your weekly meals? My hand is raised too.


What sticks out to me now is that my mom always knew exactly how much she had to spend and rarely went over budget. That’s why we went to so many different grocery stores; she wanted to get what she needed at the best price. Now that I have a family of my own and am largely in charge of our meal plans, grocery shopping, and cooking, I’m realizing how challenging it is to organize all the meals while sticking to a budget.

A few months ago, I really hit my breaking point. I spent a few hours going to Trader Joe’s, Target, Aldi, and another local grocery store to try and get everything we needed. Once I got home, I tallied up the receipts, had gone completely over budget, and still needed 2-3 ingredients that were out of stock at the stores. “This has got to change,” I said to myself. Now, I’ve been doing some trial and error on how to create a realistic grocery budget and not go over. Here’s what I’m doing:



1. Make a total food budget, not just a grocery budget

A common theme in my household is that we have a fridge full of food, but we want to order takeout. Some people split their budget into two separate buckets of money: one for takeout and one for groceries. It doesn’t matter if you split it up or combine it, but it is important to account for the takeout somewhere within your food budget.


A common theme in my household is that we have a fridge full of food, but we want to order takeout.


If you’re buying groceries for seven days worth of meals but you get takeout twice a week, you essentially bought excess groceries for those two extra days. Instead, if you know Tuesdays and Saturdays are usually takeout days, set aside an amount for those meals and just buy groceries for the remaining days. This leads me to my next point.


2. Plan your meals with some flexibility

I can’t stress enough how helpful it is to shop with a meal plan. Now, sometimes it’s hard for me to know today what I’m going to want to eat next week, and that’s why it’s important to be flexible. Rather than planning concrete meals for each day and getting to that day and not wanting that meal, instead, I plan a protein, veggie, and carb for each day. 

For example, shift from “next Wednesday, we’ll have tuna noodle casserole” to “Wednesday, we’ll do seafood with sweet potatoes and a salad.” The latter circumstance gives you room to scan what seafood is on sale versus forcing you to buy the more expensive one because that’s the meal you planned for. Plus, if you enjoy cooking, this also allows you to use a bit of creativity when the day rolls around and you’d rather make tuna cakes than tuna noodle casserole. 


3. Get some input from your family

What helps me spend less on food is knowing that I’m buying things my family will eat. There is nothing worse than meal planning for the week, then mealtime comes and someone says “But I want pizza instead!” Sometimes the answer is “Sorry, maybe another day,” but that doesn’t take away the frustration that if you would’ve known your family wanted pizza you could’ve made that happen.

Get everyone together and ask if they have any favorites they’d like to put on the menu for the week ahead. Or maybe assign each person a day and each week they get to chose their favorite meal. Sometimes this could be Chinese takeout or homemade meatloaf; either way, you know it’s more likely to get eaten if they’re looking forward to it.



4. Don’t skip frozen vegetables

In addition to lowering my grocery bill, I’m also trying to reduce food waste and that means actually eating the groceries I buy and throwing away less. When it comes to vegetables, I’ll take them any way I can get them. But sometimes when I put them in the crisper drawers in the fridge I forget that they’re there, and I end up tossing spoiled veggies. 

I don’t know why I didn’t lean on frozen veggies sooner, but they’ve been a lifesaver lately, especially the steamable bags. Now, when I’m grocery shopping I grab a variety of frozen vegetables, and come mealtime, I can toss in the microwave to steam, put on a baking sheet and roast, or in a pot to quickly boil. This is a great way to waste less and eat more vegetables.


5. Make meals that stretch

Before I had a family, I was living in New York on an incredibly low income, and I’d buy a box of pasta, some spaghetti sauce, and a bagged salad. This held me over for a week easily, and now with a family could last me 2-3 days.

If you’re on a tight grocery budget, plan for meals that can be eaten a few times. Think of recipes like chili, spaghetti and meatballs, casseroles, burrito bowls, and soups. These are often easy to make with low-cost ingredients like potatoes, pasta, rice, lentils, beans. Pro tip: if you can, make a double batch and freeze half of it for another time, this will help save money and time!



No matter why you’re looking to tighten your grocery budget, I know the stress and frustration that comes with budgeting and then overspending on groceries. Every family is different and so it’s important to figure out what works best for yours. What I’ve realized is that budgeting is just like strengthening any muscle, to see positive results you must frequently work at it over time.


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