grocery shopping on a budget

I’m going to dedicate this post to a passion of mine- GROCERY SHOPPING.

When I started this blog I was just about to start graduate school, where I flirted with the poverty line for about 4 years. Even though I have a real job now, I still try to keep my spending under control, especially when it comes to groceries. I think there’s a lot on the internet about this topic, but I don’t trust all of it.

Like when you see a recipe for linguine with shrimp under the heading “$5 Dinners!” Um, did you already have the shrimp in your freezer? Because that’s cheating.

A non-$5 recipe that I want to re-create
A non-$5 dinner recipe that I want to re-create

In general, I love love love the Mint app for budgeting. It links to your bank accounts, credit cards, student loans, car loans, etc. and allows you to create custom budgets based on your lifestyle and income. Warning: if you enter in your student loans, it will tell you on a daily basis that your net worth is negative 3 million dollars. Don’t let it hurt your ego. We’ll get through this together.

For groceries specifically, I try to keep it to $50 or less per week. Keep in mind that I’m usually only shopping for myself, with the exception of occasional family dinners with my roomies and the GS. So your budget might be higher than that, but here are some things I think about while behind my grocery cart:

Have a list. Always. I keep a note in my phone so that when I run out of essentials, I remember to grab them when I’m there. This prevents me from making extra trips which can sometimes result in extra purchases. Like if I forget to buy toothpaste at the grocery store, I go to Target and end up buying nail polish, a sports bra, a tank top, and hand towels. Because why not?

One example of an impulse Target purchase… #sorrynotsorry

Have a recipe. Sometimes. Sometimes I get it in my head that I want to make a certain dish and it has to be right now. I go into the store specifically in pursuit of those ingredients. This is wonderful. More often, I go to the store feeling uninspired and just check to see what’s on sale. I have the Pinterest and Foodgawker apps on my phone for this exact reason. If something random is on sale, like short ribs, I type it into one of my apps to browse for ideas. I don’t necessarily follow any of the recipes I find, but it gives me some kind of idea of a direction to head in. Sometimes these end up being my favorite meals!

Don’t be a brand snob. I used to be guilty of this. The best example is Greek yogurt. I used to ONLY buy Chobani, even if something else was on sale. Because I buy like 10 at a time, it adds up. Now, I try to buy whatever is on sale. Obviously you might end up finding a brand that you don’t like (looking at you, Yoplait). I’m not advocating that you’re miserable while eating, but it’s good to try other things for the sake of saving yourself some dinero.

Go to the grocery store once a week. Or four times a week. This is a personal preference thing. I used to be a once-a-weeker, where I would stock up on everything I needed and try my hardest to keep it under $50. When I lived in Rochester and Wegmans was oh-so-close, I got in the habit of going much more often. I think if you’re going more often, you have to be more conscious of how you’re shopping in those trips. Are you buying only exactly what you need for dinner that night, or are you also browsing and grabbing random ingredients because you feel like it? That’s where it can get dangerous.

Buying a whole fresh fish? Probably best to grab that the day of.
Cooking a whole fresh fish? Probably best to grab that the day of.

Never throw away leftovers. The concept of wasting food makes no sense to me. I get that if you’re only cooking for yourself, you might get sick of eating the same thing for dinner 4 nights in a row. This doesn’t happen to me, but I understand it. There are so many ways to mix up your leftovers to keep them interesting that I can never justify throwing out perfectly good food. This pulled pork is a great example- we had it as breakfast burritos, regular tacos, and quesadillas. None went to waste. If you’re someone who really gets sick of eating the same food, you could always try to get some friends to do a recipe swap where you each make 4 servings of something and pass it around. I don’t have enough friends for this, but if you try it definitely let me know.

Never throw away anything. In keeping with the non-wasteful theme, I always hear about people who get really excited and buy a bunch of stuff at the store and then it just goes bad before they get around to cooking it. This is why it’s good to have a plan in mind of what exactly you’re going to do with that acorn squash. On that same token, if you open the fridge and see that you have some zucchini that’s looking not-so-hot, figure out something to do with it TODAY instead of tossing it tomorrow. I just checked- I have 14 recipes including zucchini. Get after it.

Eat breakfast and lunch on the cheap. If you’re really money conscious like I am, keep your first two meals inexpensive. I’m a cereal or oatmeal girl, but eggs are also very affordable. For lunch, I eat a PB&J and a Greek yogurt every day. I’ve been doing this for about 5 years now and I’m still not sick of it. Lunch probably costs me around $2 per day. Because of this, I feel okay when I want to splurge on something fun for a dinner recipe.

Not every meal needs meat. Usually your protein is the most expensive part of the dish, but there are a lot of filling meals that don’t have any meat. My favorite lately are these corn and poblano wraps with black beans. As I said in the post, the GS ate one and then after he was done swallowing said, “Was there meat in that?” Beans are CHEAP, people!

Not every meal needs side dishes. As lovely as I think it is to serve a main course with a starch and a veggie just like your mom does, this isn’t always realistic. If I make myself a chicken cordon bleu sandwich, I don’t actually need to also eat some rice pilaf and steamed broccoli. I’m full after just the sandwich. Obviously if you’re entertaining it’s nice to have options, but if you’re flying solo? Probably not necessary.

That one astronomically-priced ingredient. I remember agonizing over this when I made homemade falafel. I think the jar of tahini was $9 and I couldn’t fathom spending 20% of my week’s budget on that stupid paste. But I reaaaaaaally wanted to make falafel. In that case, the chickpeas were cheap, and I already had the majority of the other ingredients (spices, flour for the pita bread, etc) at home. All in all, it wasn’t a massive sacrifice to buy the tahini. When this happens, look at the quantity of said ingredient, think about what it’s actually adding to the dish, and whether you will use it again. It might be worth the investment, or it might be worth leaving out or substituting. Especially if it’s something that’s going to go bad before you might make another dish that includes it.

Thank you, Lisa, for introducing me to this "astronomically priced" ingredient. At least in my world.
A gift from Lisa. I can’t buy stuff like this because I have no self control.

Pay attention to the unit price. This might seem like an obvious tip so I apologize if you’re offended, but it’s one thing I noticed when I started shopping for myself. Sometimes things that are advertised as being on sale aren’t the cheapest option. Within a given product, the unit prices should be standard (i.e. peanut butter is price per ounce). It’s a good habit to start checking this, because you might find that you’re saving a little bit here and there by paying more attention to the labels.

Buy in bulk, but only if you’ll eat it. Certain things will always be cheaper in bulk. The first example that comes to mind is chicken. I may balk (HAHA BAWK-CHICKEN. Get it?) over spending $12 on a big package of chicken breasts, but it’s something that I know I will use. It’s annoying to go home and do the trimming, individual wrapping, and freezing, but once it’s done I probably have built in protein for at least 3 meals waiting for me. Don’t get seduced by the Costco effect where you buy 15 pounds of flaked coconut because you just need to make magic bars. I understand the need, but you will never go through all that coconut. This is why I find extreme coupon-ing so ridiculous. Cool that you bought 500 packages of Ramen noodles for 3 cents, but now it’s just taking up space in your weird-ass pantry. Waste.

Freeze it for later. Especially now that we’re getting into chillier weather, there are so many great and easy recipes that can be made in bulk and then re-heat beautifully. I have this post on make-ahead meals, and if you’ve got the space in your freezer this can be both a money-saving and time-saving endeavor.

Beef bourguignon could be done in the crockpot in advance! Make your mashed potatoes right before.
Beef bourguignon could be done in the crockpot in advance! Then all you have to do is make your mashed potatoes .

Holy cow are you still with me? This ended up being way longer than I anticipated, but I hope you found something in here that might be helpful for your future shopping adventures!

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Zoe and Todd says:

    Thank you!!!!! I used to use Mint, but I abandoned it and really need to get back into it. I wish I had friends to meal swap with, too! How do you know if you’re at $50 with your list? Is it just practice at this point? I’d love to see how you meal plan for the week and incorporate food into leftovers, etc. We are guilty of throwing away, like if I buy a bunch of kale for dinner one night and then the next night we’re having Asian. Thanks again, I needed this!

  2. Ursula says:

    LOVED this one keep it up 💋

  3. lisa says:

    Have you not eaten my salted chocolate bar yet?? Funny you say you can ‘t keep them in the pantry.Pat bought home 6 bars last night – he’s testing my will power! Of course I loved your -“no waste” post. We’ll get you a worm bin then you can feed your food scraps to the worms, it’ll take some guilt out of throwing food away. 🙂

    1. Of course I ate it- on the plane ride home! I just took a picture so that I could find it again. I would love to start composting, but there’s no garden space at our place in Baltimore 🙂 Someday!

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