How To

Grocery Budgeting For The Insanely Broke


It seems appropriate to kick things off on a grocery shopping day. Today my plan is to set up our meal calendar for the next two weeks, plan a shopping list and stay within the budget of $150… and no, I don’t use coupons. Not because I don’t want to, but because newspapers don’t deliver 20 miles out into the countryside and the cost of gas to go to town and pick one up would defeat the value of the coupons. I don’t have a computer either. I access the Internet entirely through an iPod with a cellular wifi tether. It’s probably a blessing though. I spend enough time glued to my iPod. My kids would probably forget what I look like if I was stuck in a back room of the house… So yeah, I rely on good planning alone when it comes to groceries.

The first thing I need to do is decide on fourteen meals that will feed our family of four adults and two children. I use recipes that make enough food to provide leftovers for lunch the following day so we don’t have to purchase extra “lunch only” foods. Because our budget is tight this month ($150 instead of the usual $200 bi-weekly) I’m going to avoid recipes that utilize specialty ingredients, fancy cheeses and fresh fruits or vegetables.

Our kitchen calendar is also our meal calendar!

These are the winners (in no particular order):

-Breakfast 4 Dinner-
Ham & Broccoli Strata (made with whole wheat bread), Country potatoes, canned peaches
3 CH
Italian Meatloaf with roasted garlic onion potatoes, green beans
1 CH / 1 GB
Cheesy Vegetable Beef Pot pie
2 CH / 1 GB
Thai chicken and vegetables with peanut sauce noodles
1 CB
-Breakfast 4 Dinner-
Turkey egg and cheese cups, banana bread, canned peaches
2 CH
Steak with mashed potatoes and corn on the cob
Chicken pot pie
1 CB
Garlic Rosemary Roasted chicken and potatoes with brown rice and mixed vegetables
2 CB
Mince Meat with peas & brown rice
2 GB
Chicken bean soup
2 CH / 1 CB
-Breakfast 4 Dinner-
Peaches and cream French toast bake, roasted lipton onion potatoes, canned peaches
Whole wheat penne with black olive meat sauce
1 GB
Teriyaki Chicken stir fry with brown rice
1 CB
Whole wheat Hamburger helper, corn
1 GB

A typical shopping list in the “Shopping List” app.

You probably noticed the codes under each meal. This makes it easier to clump together the items that can be purchased cheaper in bulk (like meats and cheese) when I’m making my shopping list. No cryptic ancient languages or anything:

CH = Pounds of cheese
CB = Number of chicken breasts
GB = Pounds of ground beef

The codes are one small element of my budgeting system. I’ve developed 10 strict rules that I follow to assure that I keep to my budget and my family eats healthy. Here they are:

1) Limit your variety of meat.

Why? Because meat is expensive. We only buy lean ground beef and chicken breast. Yes, chicken breast is slightly more expensive than bone-in chicken… until you calculate that your not paying by the pound for bone and skin. As for the ground beef, I’m often asked “how lean” to buy: Buy what you can afford! No one will know if it’s a little fattier sometimes!

Both of those meats can be made in a million different ways too, so it’s tough to get bored if you mix things up. This is well-demonstrated by my list of meals in this post. The only exception is the steak in the freezer that we got from a neighbor.

We also shave money off the meat budget by eating breakfast for dinner at least once a week because we get free eggs from our chickens, but it’s still SUPER CHEAP if you buy eggs too. The trick is to avoid breakfast dishes that use meat (with the exception of the occasional lunch meat, which only costs approximately $2 per meal, less than $0.50 per person!). Focus on using cheese, eggs, potatoes and canned fruit when looking for “Breakfast 4 Dinner” recipes. I make French toast bakes, banana bread, strata, etc. and serve it with country potatoes or roasted potatoes and canned peaches, pears or fruit cocktail.

2) ONLY buy groceries twice a month (bi-weekly).

Otherwise it’s easy to get off budget and waste money on gas for the back-and-forth. That means CAREFUL planning. I write up the menu for two weeks, make a shopping list that includes every ingredient in every recipe that I plan to make during those two weeks, then I go through the kitchen and remove items that I already have on hand.

3) Calculate chicken by the breast and beef by the pound PER MEAL.

When making your shopping list, calculate how many pounds of chicken you’ll need for each recipe by figuring out how many chicken breasts you’ll need.

– All six of us can eat a chicken pot pie made from one chicken breast, cubed (since it’s mixed with veggies and has crust: lots of filler!!).
– Stir fry for six people = 1 chicken breast, cut up (since it’s mixed with other veggies and served over rice).
– Roasted chicken sandwiches with green chillies and cheese for six people = 2 chicken breasts. I can slice each breast into three long pieces that are perfect on French rolls.

The same applies to beef:
– Meatloaf = 1 Lb (since it’s mixed with other ingredients and served with potatoes)
– Hamburgers for 6 people = 2 lbs of beef since you’ll need six solid patties.
– Chili = 1 lb since it’s mixed with beans and (if you make it like me, a little pasta too!)

I use the code system I mentioned previously as I select my meals because it makes creating a shopping list SO MUCH easier.

4) Freeze the meat in “meal portions”.

Put two chicken breasts into one freezer bag for each two-breast meal you have planned and one chicken breast in a baggy for each single-breast meal. The same applies for ground beef by the pound. Quart size freezer bags are perfect for up to two chicken breasts or 1 Lb ground beef. Trust me on this one: When you only need one breast or one pound of beef, it’s a pain in the butt to try to chip it off a block of frozen meat!! And there’s no way the meat will hold without freezing it.

Freezing meat In meal portions will save you time AND money because if something comes up (like a dinner invitation or you decide to eat out) and you skip a dinner on your two week schedule, you can remove that meat portion from your next shopping list. Also, remember to squish the beef flat in the bags so you can stack it in the freezer easier and if there is meat leftover from your last shopping trip, make sure you move it to the top of the stack (when you put the new meat in) so it gets used first.

The meat section of the freezer. In the back: Stacked 1 pound baggies of ground beef on the right and baggies of chicken stock on the left. Single and double chicken breast baggies in the front.

5) Calculate cheese by the cup.

Cheese (just like meat) is cheaper when purchased in bulk but you don’t want to buy too much and you have to know how to divide it. The trick to calculating how much cheese you’ll need is to remember this:
So if you have a recipe that needs 2 cups of shredded cheese, that’s half a pound. If your recipe uses slices instead of shredded cheese, calculate haw much you’ll need. 1 cup? 2 cups? Mark it on your recipe when you figure out what works so you have it documented for next time. I actually mark how many cups of cheese, pounds of beef and number of chicken breasts needed at the top of all my recipes!!

When you get the cheese home, immediately cut it into 1 cup portions and put those 1 cup miniature cheese blocks into one big gallon baggy in the fridge (try to squeeze out extra air as much as possible). This keeps me from accidentally dipping into the cheese meant for a different meal, causing us to run out before our next grocery trip. Cheese easily stays fresh in a ziplock baggy for well over two weeks. Just make sure you don’t shred it until needed. I buy sharp cheddar for everything. It costs a TINY bit more, but gives a lot of flavor to everything so I don’t FEEL like I’m “eating cheap”! 🙂

6) Veggies at every meal. Always!

Because I have kids, I make a special effort to have vegetables at every single meal (and potatoes don’t count as veggies! Those are just a starch to me!). Fresh vegetables are (unfortunately) expensive and have a very short shelf life. Canned vegetables are high in sodium and often have unwanted additives. So the best way that we’ve found to eat vegetables every day is to first grow as much as we can in our own garden and secondly to buy frozen vegetables. We’re still trying to get the garden up and running so frozen has been our staple since moving here.

The common “basic” frozen vegetables like peas, corn, green beans and mixed vegetables can be purchased for under $1 per bag at most grocery stores. I always specify what type of frozen vegetable we’ll have with each meal so it’s always rotated (or it’d be easy to get bored!) and I know how many of each kind to put on the shopping list.

The only time I buy frozen vegetables other than the “basic” varieties is for Stir Fry and Pot Pies because there are specialty mixes that work better. Such “fancy” mixes usually cost about 50% more but are worth it if the vegetables are a focal point in the dish, not simply a side dish.

The frozen veggie bucket in the bottom of the freezer. Notice my “fancy” pot pie and stir fry mixes on top of LOADS of “basic” veggies.

The only thing I ALWAYS buy in the produce section are my “Pantry vegetables”: Potatoes, onions and garlic. These are cheap, useful and have a nice long shelf-life. I also occasionally pick up a few fresh herbs (if not available in my own garden) but remember to plan your meal calendar so recipes that utilize fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs are eaten sooner. There’s nothing more depressing than discovering an ingredient has gone bad.

7) Discount grocery stores & generic brands ONLY!

Even if the advertised specials at major grocery chains like Lucky, Safeway and SaveMart sound amazing, I’ve noticed that I still end up spending 10%-20% more overall when I shop there. The same applies at Walmart and Target where they now offer “affordable” grocery sections with extremely limited selections: You’ll pay less than usual for a brand-name product but it’s still not as cheap as the generic alternative. I’ve had the best luck at Food4Less, then WinCo, but grocery store options vary by area. I tried a different store each grocery day before realizing the major benefits of shopping at Food4Less.

8) Whole wheat ONLY

‘Nuff said! Don’t waste money or calories on white bread, white rice, anything called “white”. It took living with a diabetic in the house for us to learn exactly how unhealthy “white” foods are. We only buy brown rice, whole wheat and whole grain now.

9) Make it yourself!

Try to avoid purchasing more than one pre-made or packaged dinner every two weeks. We always have one (Hamburger Helper for example) but we rarely end up using it. In fact, those two boxes of whole wheat Hamburger Helper have been in our pantry for four months! It’s always the last dinner on our schedule and the first one to be replaced if we end up eating out or being invited to dinner, but it’s good to have an easy backup option for those days when you think you’re going to crack.

There are other things you can make too. Breadcrumbs for $5 a box? Are you kidding???!!! Toast a few slices of whole wheat bread and crumble it yourself! Cheaper, healthier and no weird cellulose fillers. I personally LOVE cooking with Lipton Onion Soup Mix, but can’t justify paying $6 for two little packets, so I dry my own onions in a dehydrator once a month, crush them and mix in some seasonings. Instead of dollars, I pay pennies for a packet-worth of oniony goodness. I also save veggie and herb scraps and roast chicken carcasses in ziplock baggies in the freezer to boil into chicken stock once every couple months, which also freezes in quart size bags (2 cup servings).

My price reference lists in the “Shopping List” app.

10) Save your receipts!

Seriously. There’s no better way to build a shopping list with a budget than to know how much you’ve spent for that item in the past. I use an app called “Shopping List” where I keep lists of each grocery item I’ve purchased and their prices, categorized by aisle. After each shopping trip, I use the receipt to add new items and update the prices of items already on the list. It’s an invaluable reference when making my new shopping lists each time. Where we live, food items are not taxed but the “Shopping List” app let’s you select whether or not each item is taxed and calculates the tax automatically for you. It also let’s you know where you stand on budget as you add items and even has pop-up notices to tell you when something is close to it’s expiration date. I love it!! And I don’t have to keep a box of receipts anymore. Just make sure to email each price list to yourself when you update them, so everything is safely backed up.

Well, that’s my system! Now I’ll put it to work at the grocery store and let you know how I do…

…$80.02 SCORE! Looks like we’ll have a little extra to add to our “go to the movies” fund! Whoop whoop!!

7 thoughts on “Grocery Budgeting For The Insanely Broke

  1. Yay!! Thank you for your tips Ann! I am excited to utilize them. Though I am not excited about the fact that Alex and I are broke… I am excited to make the best of it and smart decisions! Your tips are great… I wish my android had that shopping list app!

    1. Just do an app search for “shopping list” or “lists”. I downloaded every single free version available, played with each one, then deleted the tedious ones until I narrowed it down to the easiest app with the most convenient features. Then I actually paid a couple bucks and bought the “Pro” version (since it’s an app I know I’ll use CONSTANTLY!!). I’m sure you’ll find one that works on your phone too. They all have similar features… and it’s a LOT easier than saving receipts!!! If you do find one, please Please PLEASE put the name on this page in the comments too, just in case anyone else is looking for an Android equivalent.

      1. The best one I have found thus far is Mighty Grocery Shopping Lite (the free version). It is easy to use and has the option to set your tax and easily add the price of the item. 🙂

  2. I love how you set this up! Easy to read. Easy to follow. As soon as I had a question on something you answered it next. I do a few of these things already, but I have even more things to add to my saving money list. Thank you soooooo much!

  3. What a great post! We are in a very lean (no, can’t afford lean) financial situation at the moment, so always good to have a few tips.

    I’m really there with you on spending money to move the car to the cheapest or healthiest foods just doesn’t work, especially when every cent counts, and we live in the suburbs. Glad you are able to grow some fresh foods yourself as being out of town sure puts a whole new spin on what you can get by on.

    Thanks for sharing.

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