An Experiment: What’s the Best Way to Budget Grocery Shopping?
One frugal family recorded their grocery expenses for a month to see where they did well and where they could improve. Here's what they learned.
I was shocked to learn that the average person in the U.S. spends $190 per month for food at home and another $191 on food away from home, according to the USDA. My family of three spends around a third of this amount, and we often invite others over to eat with us! And it’s not all beans and rice — we do eat an omnivorous diet.
But I don’t plan meals, I rarely use a grocery list, and I refuse to use coupons or go to multiple stores. In fact, other than not eating out, I wasn’t sure why our spending came in lower than average. To figure out how we keep our spending low, I tracked our spending and consumption for 28 days in an attempt to find clues to our very tempting food bill. This is what I learned:
Average Meal Price Per Person (Includes Other Eaters in Calculations)
Snacks and Desserts: $0.77
Most Common Foods
Breakfast: Eggs with Toast (22 times)
Lunch: Sandwiches with apples, carrots and chips (8 times)
Dinner: Stir Fry (8 times)
Snack: Popcorn (12 times)
Healthy Habits: Six green smoothies, 11 entrée salads, 12 days with no sweets consumed, 27 days without alcohol
Junk-Food Binges: Celebration overload — between my birthday, Mother’s Day, and a friend’s birthday, we consumed carrot cake, cookies, or cheesecake bars (16 days)
The Full Breakdown
Fifty-nine percent of our spending went towards proteins, vegetables, fruit, and whole grains. Eight percent of our spending went towards sugar and starchy snacks.
Our Conclusions: How to Save Money Cooking for a Family
1. Snack on Cheap Junk (Kidding, But Not Really)
During the course of this exercise, I realized that we eat junky snacks. Granola, graham crackers, popcorn, and popsicles were my go-tos. When I realized how much junk we ate, I added healthier options like green smoothies, peanut-butter toast, and oatmeal to the rotation. These snacks cost more and require some prep, but the health benefits outweigh the costs.
In my analysis, I classified desserts as snacks. We enjoyed an abundance of homemade treats, as I love baking. Besides, cookies and cakes only cost a few dollars when made from scratch. To keep our consumption in check, I only make treats for group gatherings and celebrations.
2. Don’t Fear Fat
Fats accounted for $43.55 during the 28 days. For many people, this is shockingly high, but I don’t fear fat. Plant-based fats (avocados, olive oil, nuts, etc.) offer health benefits, and we rely on them to fill up at a low price. On the other hand, mayo, bacon, butter, and cream cheese don’t offer benefits outside of being delicious. But we still shared some of those delicious fatty condiments and baked goods with friends.
3. Buy Food You Eat
During tracking, I threw away one zucchini, part of an avocado, and a few mushy grapes. The Natural Resources Defense Council suggests that Americans throw out about 25 percent of the food that they purchase. To avoid food waste, I purchase food that I know my family will eat. I allow myself to buy an ingredient I’ve never used before if I can quickly find a recipe for it. Otherwise, I leave the product on the shelf.
4. Limit Leftovers
My family and I don’t eat leftovers, so when I cook, I aim to make the exact amount of food that we’ll eat. If I make too much, my husband or our housemate will usually split an extra helping of food. The exception to this rule comes when I roast or grill meat. During those meals, I make two or three times as much meat as we need so that I can reuse it in another meal.
5. Scout Out Deals
My family eats loads of meat, fruits, and vegetables, but we spent just $187.50 on these products. I get meat deals by shopping at Aldi on Friday mornings when my local store clearance sales on meat. I buy some clearance produce, but the bulk of our produce comes from “Special Buy” promotions at Aldi. Spring and summer bring an abundance of cheap produce, and we gorge on it. The rest of the year, we rely on frozen vegetables and oranges to keep scurvy at bay.
6. Develop Food Systems
Some people clip coupons, create a meticulous meal plan, and write a grocery list. I’m too lazy for that. We keep expenses low by having a food system instead of a meal plan. Most nights we eat stir fry, tacos, or rice bowls because these meals are flexible. I use whatever meat and produce that I bought on sale to make the meal.
When I have time, I cook and freeze a batch of meatballs or grilled chicken, and I aim to chop up produce the day I get home from the grocery store. Preparing meal components allows me to whip up meals without having a specific meal plan.
7. Learn to Cook
Cooking is a skill, and it takes time and energy to learn to do it in a way that works for your family. I learned basic cooking skills from my mom, but I read food blogs, watch cooking tutorials, and practice various techniques so that we can eat high-quality food at home for cheaper.