When it comes to saving money, almost every family looking to pinch a penny or two eventually ends up looking at their grocery bill. Food costs take a substantial bite out of our budgets—about 12-13% of our spending in a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (If you’re wondering what takes the biggest chunk—about 31%–it’s housing.)
What’s a reasonable or average weekly grocery bill? A great deal will depend on where you live and how you choose to eat. However, the USDA, basing its amounts on national research, estimates that a thrifty family of four (two adults, two school-aged children) can get by on about $150/week for groceries, while a family willing to be a bit more generous might spend closer to $300. It’s important to note that fresher, healthier foods like lean meats, dairy and fresh produce often do tend to cost somewhat more than empty calories like refined starch and snack foods. This can create a difficult situation for some families who are on a tight budget. But in the end, the ”cost” of eating less healthy foods can be high for our health.
So how can families who want to trim their food budgets cut back? While there are many possibilities, at least a few of the options below are likely to work for most people. One exciting new update to the old story of food budgeting involves the many new apps being developed to help shoppers save, track prices, and find deals. Although these innovations may have some downsides, many may find them surprisingly helpful. Read on to find ideas that can work for a variety of families and budgets.
- Know where to look—and where not to. Essentials like meat, dairy, and produce tend to be placed on the outside perimeter of the grocery store, but the retailer is hoping you’ll trudge through every aisle, picking up nonessentials along the way. Try not to if you don’t have to! Another “location” tip: often, the least cost-effective items are placed at eye level, while generics or bargain items are on top and bottom shelves. Look up, and stoop down.
- Go meatless. Not all the time, of course (unless that’s your thing) but occasionally—maybe once or even twice a week. Meatless meals based around beans, eggs, nuts, and cheese are not only less expensive, but typically better for you. To find easy, family-friendly recipes, search the web and social media for “meatless Monday.”
- Buy in bulk. Most of us are aware of the potential savings when buying in bulk at retailers like BJ’s, Costco and Sam’s Club. (These retailers also typically offer a military discount on their memberships.) If you have the space and the ability pay more up front, you’re likely to save on a cost per item or per ounce basis. (Of course, be sure you’re buying items that you’ll actually use.) But another way to save by buying in bulk is by taking advantage of retailers who offer unpackaged bulk goods such as beans, grains, and spices, which can be exponentially cheaper per pound than those offered prepackaged. And of course, the time-honored practice of stocking up when a favorite staple is on sale has served families well for generations.
- Be thoughtful about prepared foods. Most of us know full well that prepared foods can be a budget killer at the grocery store, whether we’re talking about frozen entrees or those pre-prepped “salads in a bag.” As a general rule, budget-minded shoppers would do well to avoid these. However, there may be a time and place for these items in a thoughtful budget. For instance, my family keeps a few quick frozen entrees on hand at all times for these nights when everything goes sideways and we’d otherwise get takeout, fast food, or a pizza. While these items are not cheap, they are cheaper than that alternative.
- Don’t forget the commissary! Of course, most service members living close to or on a base are likely to be well aware of the cost savings available at commissaries, which can be substantial, especially considering the lack of tax. However, the lack of generic brands at commissaries does sometimes reduce savings.
- Don’t buy toiletries and nonfood items at the grocery store. While it’s convenient to buy toiletries, paper good, diapers, and so on at the grocery store, it’s typical to find much better prices at drugstores, big box stores, or even online. The Subscribe and Save feature of Amazon may offer convenience and savings for items purchased over and over.
- Look into WIC qualification rules. It may be surprising to learn, but some military families, especially those with many children and only one lower-income wage-earner, do qualify for WIC, the government’s supplemental food assistance program for pregnant women and families with young children. WIC provides families with healthy groceries like milk, meat, peanut butter, and fruits and vegetables, and it’s much easier to qualify for than more other government assistance programs. More about WIC.
- Finally: don’t shop hungry! I’ve been known to buy some truly crazy stuff after heading into the grocery store while starving for supper. If this describes you, it might be wise to just stop off and buy a small snack first to avoid nonsense purchases.
In part 2 of this series, we’ll clue you in to some of the great new apps and technology available today to help us save money on grocery shopping. Stay tuned!
USDA. (2016). Official USDA Food Plans: Cost of Food at Home at Four Levels, U.S. Average, November 2016.
Hellmich, N. (2013). Cost of feeding a family of four: $146 to $289 a week.