Keeping the food budget at bay

How I spend $140 per month on groceries (in an expensive city)

Now, I realize that $140 for the month may sound reasonable or may sound impossible depending on where you live. If you’re cool eating ramen and PB&J most days, then $140 on groceries may seem excessive. The truth is, when I’m trying to pull together a healthy, balanced meal plan, keeping myself under about $35 per week is quite the adventure.

For the past few months, I’ve challenged myself keep to the $140 per month limit. I’ve given minimal leeway when I have a week where a higher-ticket expensive pantry staple needs to be replaced (things like ground coffee or coconut oil).

Let’s set the scene:

  • I live in the Boston metro area. I’m close enough to the city that there is little-to-no price variation between downtown and where I live.
  • I work for a non-profit, with my take-home pay being just shy of $1,000 every two weeks.
  • I go to the gym regularly and take it pretty seriously, so my calorie and macro needs are something I heavily consider when shopping. Getting healthy food is super important to me. I usually eat between 1750–2040 calories per day.

It is common knowledge that things like bananas and canned beans and white bread are all cheap options, but being able to master balancing a budget with a gym-goer type diet takes a little extra skill (gained through trial and error).

Now that you know the basics of where I’m coming from, here’s how I manage to average less than $5 per day on food.

I plan like my life literally depends on it.

I mean, because it kinda does. Between rent and all the other bills, that non-profit salary doesn’t afford me the luxury of not needing to pay close attention to my grocery bill.

Pinterest and market flyers are my best friends. I can see what is on sale at my local store (especially meat and vegetables) and then pop over to Pinterest to see what recipes I can find that highlight the sale items.

I’ll usually only buy something if it can be used twice in the week. For example, this week I’m trying to recreate The Halal Guys’ falafel platter, so I got shredded lettuce, which would not ordinarily be worth the $2.49, but I’ll be using it in multiple dishes, and the remainder of the platter ingredients combined cost is less than $3.50 per serving, so it works out to be ok (particularly given that the takeout price is about $9.50 with tax).

I pick one small meat item.

I recently reintegrated meat back into my diet. Not super stoked about it, but I simply wasn’t able to hit my protein goals without going way over on calories or shoveling in food when I wasn’t hungry. I treat meat more like a condiment than the main component of the meal.

Meat can be the most expensive thing in your cart. Picking one item per week means I can be meat-minimal, while still getting a little protein support — and the big bonus is that I’m not spending out the wazoo.

Some examples:

  • One small package of ground beef/chicken/turkey can go into 2 meals — usually one for current week and one to be frozen for the following week. Taco salad, American chop suey, lentil+meat cottage pie.
  • Two chicken breasts into the slow cooker with salsa (pulled salsa chicken!) can be chicken burritos, top a salad, or be eaten with some tortillas.
  • Deli meats can be customized. Think of how many sandwiches/salads you’ll make, and then ask the counter to carve up exactly the number of slices you’ll need.

Produce needs to be exact or super hearty.

By that I mean I either buy the exact quantity of and item I need, or it better be something that can last in the fridge or on the counter for a few days if it doesn’t get used up right away.

Things like zucchini and bell peppers need to be used pretty quickly, so I’ll try to hit the recipe quantities as accurately as possible. But with items like bagged carrots or potatoes, I have way more time — so buying a 1lb bag for a small recipe won’t mean needing to throw the rest away since those types of things last a long time in the fridge.

Compare the frozen aisle.

Sometimes the price per unit for produce is better in the freezer section. I did a little experiment with onions where I got a bag of chopped onions for $1.09 and a medium onion for $1.02. I weighed them when I got home and the bag had a slightly higher weight, making it the overall better value. I guess its a good thing I eat a lot of onions.

In terms of produce, vegetables tend to be a better value (than fruit) in the frozen aisle, but if there is a little sale sticker on frozen fruit (especially if its something fun/uncommon like cherries or papaya), I’ll usually snag one. I’m not huge into smoothies, but I’m a big fan of getting a big tub of yogurt and making my own ‘fruit on the bottom’ style yogurt cup at home — way better price per serving and I get to control the sugar.

I do not buy it if I can’t reuse it.

Well maybe not literally — but if an ingredient can’t serve more than one function and it is something that will go off quickly, I’ll recalibrate my meal plan to get rid of it. This is why the planning stage I mentioned earlier is so important.

Things I love and can reuse easily:

  • Canned, plain tomato sauce: use half, freeze half
  • Coconut milk: use half, freeze half
  • Shredded cheese: in eggs, on toast, in a salad, mixed into pasta

Things that need to be planned around:

  • Canned beans: they just don’t keep well once opened
  • Large yogurts: I’ll need to be ok with eating that all week so it doesn’t go bad
  • Almond milk: This will last for a while in the fridge, but needs to generally have a multi-meal purpose for it to end up in my shopping cart

I’m at peace with having one super boring meal in the mix.

Just a big ol’ plate of bread for dinner

Look, I get that American chop suey isn’t as glamorous as my recreation of the falafel platter. That is my trade off. I can spend a wee bit more on that stupid shredded lettuce (ugh I hate that I needed to buy that) to make the platter, but then I need to take some meat, canned tomato sauce, elbow macaroni, some dried pantry herbs, and call it a pasta dish (about $2.10 per serving).

I get one “naughty” food item.

Picking this out is always tough. Sometimes it’s something not so bad like a nicer cheese, but sometimes it needs to be tater tots. Whatever it is, I make sure it’s in the meal rotation.

I eat a lot of chips.

Why? It might seem a little odd that I would be so tight on most of the budget and generally health-conscious with my meal choices while also heavily prioritizing that one indulgent item. Truth is, while I’m generally pretty good at keeping myself on track (though this is a skill that did take a long time to learn), if I don’t have something “naughty” in the rotation, I’ll go looking for it and blow money (and, frankly, calories) on takeout. If I buy it, I can portion it and still maintain a level of control.

Give myself $10 every other week to get takeout.

I tried cutting takeout for a month and I absolutely hated it. I don’t even do it that often, but not being able to grab a burrito on the way home or run out to my beloved Halal Guys for a falafel platter wasn’t worth the extra few dollars in my wallet. I generally average one takeout item every other week, so the $20 per month was totally worth the enjoyment.It also meant that I had an extra indulgent item thrown in a couple times per month — which ultimately helps keep me on better track.

Here are some other good tips:

  • Keep a budget. Holy cow is this important. There were some months last year (when I still tracking my spending habits before implementing my current budget) where I had spent $200 on groceries — yikes!
  • Track your spending first. Get a couple months worth of honest data on how you spend, then you’ll be able to make a realistic spending goal. One thing to note is that in the first couple months of tracking (for data/insight), you’re going to start thinking more critically about what goes into your cart — try to not let this impact what you purchase — you want an honest look at how you actually spend your funds. The time to cut will come after you’ve had a real honest look at your habits. (This is so transferable — it is how I cleaned up my diet. A month of honest meal tracking was a real eye-opener, even as someone who thought she ate pretty healthily.)
  • Make shopping lists from the recipes you’ve chosen.
  • Have a Crockpot. It’s a serious time-saver, but it also helps make some fantastically cheap meals. I got mine for $20.
  • Plan to go to the store only once per week. The easiest way to overspend is by trickling into the store every few days. This is so hard for me since I genuinely love being in grocery stores.
  • Understand that sometimes staple items need to be purchased and that may throw a week/month off by a little. That’s totally forgivable and a small monthly overage is totally justifiable if you’ve run out of 2 or 3 important pantry items at the same time.

I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, but the most important part of keeping that grocery bill down is paying attention to how you’re spending. Being aware of my own habits has helped me in budgeting, gym and calorie accountability, and staving off my procrastination tendencies. I would venture to say that paying attention to your own behavior and patterns is a major key to getting from where you are to where you want to be.

What are your tips for keeping the grocery (or overall food) spending down?


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