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12 August 2014

Food and grocery budgeting - it's more than money

Although I don't write about it nearly as much as I think about it, food budgeting is one of my favourite topics. It's the first area I concentrated on when I started living a more simple life, it's what convinced me that we could indeed live this way and I believe it's the one area where almost everyone can save money. If you can provide good food for the table while saving money doing it, that spare money can go towards debt reduction or something you love. And the good thing is, the money you save on food can be continued savings every week, if you put your mind to it. I have to say too that although spending an extra twenty dollars a week on food won't break the bank here, I think a prudent and thrifty approach to the amount we spend on food, or anything, is a significant and meaningful way of living our simple life. The trick is finding the balance - good food for a good price or value for money, always.

However, food budgeting isn't just about saving money on food, it's more about the wise management of food spending, storage, planning, as well as developing and maintaining a good set of skills.

Of course, it all starts before we ever get to the shops with menu planning, growing food at home, and making many of the things we used to buy. If you plan your menu you'll waste less food and probably spend less money.  Don't feel guilty or inadequate if you don't have the time right now to do all this. There are times in your life when you will be more involved in home production rather than in buying what you need. When you can do it, take the opportunity to get involved in providing for yourself and your family. If you're not there yet, just accept it for what it is and do what you can do. I'll write about menu planning tomorrow.

While I like to think the way I budget here is more about the right food choice for us rather than the cheapest food I can find, there are some little things that make a difference to how much I spend, while still getting the food I want. For instance, I use the delicious milk from my local Maleny Dairies for drinking, cooking, cheese and yoghurt. On the odd occasion I don't have their milk, I use powdered milk for yoghurt and cooking. If you can, work out your own substitutes for those times when you can't get what you'd prefer. Being prepared and organised will help you in those times and you'll be able to avoid buying the most expensive replacement.

One way to reduce the cost of the food budget is to cut cut down on meat consumption. We aim at the three/four rule: three days with meat, four without. Sometimes it's the other way around but I never worry if it is, it generally works it's own way out. If you are going to do this you should find a good vegetarian cook book or web site. At the very least you should understand a bit about "complete protein" - meat and fish are complete proteins, lentils, legumes and nuts aren't, but by combining proteins, you can make complete proteins. For instance, baked beans aren't a complete protein but baked beans on wholemeal toast is. The bottom line many of us eat too much protein. We all need protein but it doesn't have to be animal protein. Learn more about complete protein here.

I guess my top tip would be to start with what you have. So if you're about to shop or menu plan, check to see what you have in your fridge and freezer and if you're growing food or keeping livestock, work out what is available for the kitchen in the next week. Another wise strategy is to barter your excess food for food you need. This requires contact with a lively community or at the very least, a vibrant street of like-minded folk. It's amazing what you can do with bartering once you get into it.

Once you have the food in the kitchen you have to know how to store it correctly so you can cut down on food waste. Stockpiling, preserving, baking your own bread, biscuits and cakes, making your own sauces, jams, relishes and dressings, as well as cleaners and laundry products, will cut your spending at the supermarket. All these skills can be learnt and built upon. Every thing you make yourself will be cheaper and probably tastier and healthier than the commercial version. If you can, build up your home production skills and you'll reap the rewards. One of the reasons I love making my own is that I don't have to ingest all those preservatives and artificial additives that are usually in commercial food. Making my own cleaners and laundry products helps me live with far less chemicals than I would if I had to rely on commercial cleaners. I still get the job done but with less money spent and less risk.

As you can see, grocery budgeting is influenced by many things. A series of small steps will help you cut down on your spending and while those steps are easy and simple, you need to be organised.

There is a very good resource on food budgeting over at the forum. The robust discussion there may help you clarify your position on food and grocery budgeting. We are all so different. What I say may not trigger a response in you but there is a wide variety of people contributing to that discussion and I'm sure you'll be able to relate to one of them.

I'll carry on with a post about menu plans tomorrow. It's an important topic and it's one of the ways to really cut down on what you spend on groceries.  In the meantime I'm interested in reading about your ideas on food budgeting. What do you have success with? If you've reduced your food expenses and buy healthy food, tell us how you did it.


  1. as my daughter and I set out to do some grocery shopping this past week end I was supper excited. First I planned my menu and prepared my list for the essentials. There were also a few stock up items I needed to get to replace my pantry. The exciting part was I planned to spend "x" amount of dollars and I was on the hunt for some great bargins! It was an awesome trip! I came in under budget by $45 and got everything on my list! As much as I dislike shopping I love it when I do it so well! I hope to get better at it! :)

  2. I move extra budgeted food money to whatever I am saving for at the end of the month. Last fall we purchased new appliances for our kitchen using money saved this way. Now I am saving for another need. I have been doing this for years and it is a real incentive to use that money wisely in order to realize another dream or need that we have.

  3. I use to do an excellent job of planning and budgeting for food. I've gotten away from it for many years, but in the last year I'm trying to get back on track. Your posts are inspiring.

  4. I have a "new" {for me} system in place, every week I make myself a cup of tea and sit in front of the computer and google the weekly specials at Coles and Woolies, if something we regularly use is on special, I will buy multiples of it {i.e. stockpile} then I devise a menu plan based on what I have left in the fridge combined with what is on sale that week. I make a concise list and I stick to it. Once you get used to it, it's only a minor inconvenience to go to two stores, and if you are prepared I've found it's actually quicker than aimlessly browsing the aisles trying to decide what you need. I have been doing it for about 3 months now, and the savings are astounding, I'm saving a couple of hundred dollars a month!!! I only wish I had discovered this method years ago!

    1. This will really save you money! I have shopped that way for maybe 15 years now and I only spent $132 on food in July because of the stockpile and not needing much of anything other than perishable foods. The other thing that I really like about it is that I have just about anything I need on hand and I know I paid the least possible price for it.

  5. Food budgeting is one of the areas that I am most interested at the moment. It seems that everything is expensive and I want to be able to reduce it further. I don't buy cleaners as I am using home made green cleaners however I want to work on this area of my budget. On Sunday my daughter and I planted lettuce, celery,capsicum, spring onions and thyme. Herbs are a big expense if you have to buy them from the supermarket so I need to plant more herbs that I use and this will save me $$. Yesterday I was in Woollies and bought a tin of pie apple and baby spinach and the spinach I normally buy it loose so it's cheaper and also I can buy a little bit instead of a whole bag however there was no loose leves so bought a bag which was $4 and the pie apple was $3.75 or $3.95. I then went to Aldi and their tin of pie apples were $2.75 or $2.95 and there bag of baby spinach was $1.99 so I bought it from Aldi and went back to Woollies and got a refund on the tinned apple and baby spinach. That's just 2 items that I saved at least $3 for the same items. I need to go to Aldi first and what I can't get go to Woollies and not the other way around. Regards Kathy A, Brisbane

  6. It's so much easier and cost effective when I meal plan but I've let the planning slip of late and it's been a nightmare! If I must visit one of the big two (our supermarket duopoly) I shop the perimeter i.e. avoid all the processed packaged foods in the aisles and stick to the fresh fruit, veg, meat, and dairy sections with a quick nip into the baking aisle for yeast/flour if necessary. If I'm in Aldi and there's a sale on something I use often (e.g. canned tomatoes) I buy up as many as the budget can handle. As I don't drive I also have to take into account when I will be shopping with DH and the vehicle. As a result we tend to do a big shop every fortnight or so for all the heavy things (bulk flour, canned goods, olive oil, vinegar etc) and then all the lighter goods I pick up as needed on foot or bicycle.

  7. Hi Rhonda thank you for your timely post... Can't wait for the menu planning post since we are in a bit of a crisis at our place. I'm tired of wondering about what to cook everyday. With 2 kids under 3 I find it hard to do anything.
    Nurdan from Sydney

  8. I'm mostly happy with our food budget at this stage. When we first moved to the country I could not stick to a food budget at all. I was spending over $300 a week for the 6 of us at the local foodworks. It was crazy. Now we're on a much more strict budget and I can spend about $200 a week + extras at the health food store. They are not essentials but it's important to me to include as much as I can afford. (Probiotics and colloidal minerals etc) My routine is that I shop fortnightly - Aldi, then woolworths for extras. I usually need to pick up a few things by the end of the fortnight at our local foodworks but that's to be expected. I also try and pick up a few items at the local farmers market. I was ordering an organic fruit and veg box for a while but at this stage I just can't fit it into the budget. My goal is to grow as much organic as we can once we move to our block. It will be very interesting to watch how our food budget will be impacted as we grow our veggies, add chickens and our own meat for the freezer!

  9. Thank so much for this guide, it is so helpful!! Much thanks.

  10. I've just started menu planning again and its is so good. Not only do you spend less, when I can't remember what's for dinner I just have to look at the plan and there it is and all the ingredients are in the fridge! It does take some time and dedication at the end of each week but its worth the effort. Maybe I should try fortnightly?!
    I sometimes go to three or four different stores but if I have a list its easy and doesn't take too long. We are spoilt for choice in the inner north of melbourne and I have a very productive garden. So at the moment its all working well.

  11. I find grocery prices rising every week. I buy only the basic essentials to make from scratch meals, no cleaning products beyond vinegar and very little meat and still my bill is out of sight. I live in a small apartment without the ability to garden....even in pots as watering is so costly in our drought ridden state of Texas. I have found making a meal plan to be extremely helpful and buying ingredients just for those meals. I love good home cooked food and wonder when the end of rising food prices will be in sight.

  12. Our biggest expense is good and local. That being said ....I have two rules now...don't waste anything and eat less. We all just plain eat too much I think and when I don't I feel much better.

  13. I am a master food preserver with my local university extension office (I am located in the United States). This year for our county fair, my goal for most of the things I entered was to try different things to show you can preserve more than just fruits and vegetables. There are safe, approved recipes for all kinds of condiments, juices etc. that are really good, saves money and avoids all those things many of us want to avoid.

  14. we have just arrived home after a 3 week driving holiday from the Central West of NSW over to Perth, to visit eldest son & family, did some travelling with them, and on our way home toured the south of WA and across to the Barossa in SA and then did the Grat Ocean Road in Vic, then home, glorious home. We travelled over 10,000 k's and our biggest expense was fuel and motel accommodation, we took most of our food for breakfasts and lunches and nibbles, and whilst travelling only bought mains every other day whilst travelling.
    Now home, having to littlies here because of illness and unable to do their day care whilst their mother works, tomorrow is the day that I will sit down and work out my months/6 week menu plan, as I have to have major surgery in early Sept, and at the end of Sept all our family will be here fora daughter's b/d, plus many friends, so organised I will have to be. I do a lot of preserving (bottling) freeze loads of vegies, we have our own lamb, and acces to pork, our own meat chickens and laying hens, still harvesting out of a winter garden, severely frost damaged, and yet when I went to our local Woolies the day we arrived home, to purchase milk etc, I was astounded at the changes to products and the big price changes of a lot of things, so I feel very sorry for a lot of people who are extremely hit by the big 2 who seem to be able to charge what they like.
    sorry for the ramble

  15. Here's a few of my tips:-

    When I started to get serious about saving money on my shopping, I spent a bit of time analysing my spending. When I got home from my weekly shopping trip, I saved my receipts for when I had a bit of spare time. Then I went to the time and trouble of entering all the items I'd purchased into an Excel spreadsheet. Just two columns - one for item and one for price. If the item was on a special offer, I made a little note beside it. Then I sorted the items by price so that the most expensive items appeared at the top of the list and the cheapest at the bottom of the list. I was shocked at how expensive some items were and pleasantly surprised at how cheap other items were. I asked myself if I really needed the expensive items or if I could replace them with cheaper versions. You don't need a computer to do this, by the way. You could just use different coloured highlighters - one for the expensive items and one for the cheap items. You could use a third highlighter to identify any impulse or unnecessary purchases. I don't do this every time I go shopping - life's too short :-). But doing it once or twice was very enlightening. If you do up the list on your computer, you can print it off and take it with you next time you go shopping. That way you'll know if a special offer is really a special offer because you'll know what the normal price is.

    They don't really do coupons here in Ireland but the supermarkets often have special offers on certain products. I'm only interested in special offers if the items are products that I actually use. And it helps if the products have a good Best Before date. There's no point in stocking up on something if it will be out of date/spoilt in 3 days time. Items with a good shelf life include tea, coffee, cereals, processed foods such as canned food or food in jars, cleaning products etc. Watch out for dairy products such as yoghurts - they generally only last a week or two.

    I don't stock up on chocolate bars or biscuits because I've a very sweet tooth (as does my husband) and having a big supply of goodies is too tempting! But maybe you'd be more disciplined?

    Hope that helps.

  16. Menu planing is mostly a winter activity in my household, in summer I just use what comes in from the garden and cook some staples to go with it, rice, wheat, pasta, potatoes, eggs...

    For grocery budgeting I use an envelope system. At the start of each month I put a certain amount of cash into a (self made) pouch. I go shopping once a week and for each trip I take about 70 Euro along.
    While shopping I keep a running tab of how much I have in my cart so that I do not over spend. This works really well to keep unnecessary items out of the cart!

    Whatever I save each month gets transferred into another pouch, where I save up for the time when my car dies (it is rather old, so it is a huge relief to know that I can replace it anytime).


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