The Department of Agriculture says that groceries can average $600 to nearly $1,300 for a family of four. However, the monthly bill for my family of five comes in at or below what the USDA considered "thrifty," and a considerable fraction of what we buy is organic food.
You, too, can save a lot of money on groceries -- if you make it a priority. Here's how we keep our grocery and dining-out budget under $575 per month.
Have a Meal Plan That Yields a Grocery Spending Plan
My wife and I started meal-planning about five years ago when we realized that we'd eaten chicken tacos for dinner three nights in a row. Our lack of a plan left us scrambling to pull together suppers, which meant we were using whatever was easy and on hand. That gets repetitive fast, and when we got bored with those meals, we were more likely to eat takeout, which further bloated our food budget.
You may be thinking that meal-planning takes too much time, and we thought that too, at first. But it only takes us 15 or 20 minutes a week to build a meal plan around what's on sale and what fits our dietary choices, that falls under our budget.
You can plan for a week or for a month, but don't give in to the fear that having a plan limits you. In fact, we've found that it brings us greater flexibility as we can swap things to save time as needed.
Buy in Bulk -- Wisely
One of the biggest ways we're able to minimize our grocery spending is by selectively buying in bulk, mainly at Costco. (COST) (The savings on toilet paper alone make it worth the membership.) Seriously though, we find that with our food plan in hand, we're able to more effectively use warehouse club shopping to save money on everything from oranges to chicken.
We all know that our food savings can be taken a step further by adding in coupons. However, remember: The stores and manufactures offer coupons to lure you into buying things you didn't plan to. Don't let coupons lure you into spending more than you were planning.
Make Loss Leaders Your Friend
Loss leaders are those items that grocery stores use to get you in their doors. They will sell something at a loss -- like a half-gallon of milk for $1 -- with the expectation that after you're there, and have the milk in your cart, you'll spend more on higher-margin items to make up for it. You can turn this on its head and only purchase the loss leaders, which give you instant savings -- if you need the items. Buying loss leaders also:
- Adds variety to your meal routines.
- Allows you to stock up.
- Adds the possibility of a luxury item in your meal plan.
Shop in Season
My family loves strawberries. However, they're not in season year round where we live. When they are, it's common for us to find them going for $1 a pound. In mid-winter, we could easily pay triple that, if not more. As you can guess, we're not buying strawberries in February.
Applying that logic across the produce aisle can be a simple way to save money. Freeze your extras for out-of-season enjoyment. Grocery chains such as Aldi's commonly carry produce at a significant discount.
John Schmoll is the founder of Frugal Rules, a finance blog that regularly discusses investing, budgeting, and frugal living. He is a father, husband, and veteran of the financial services industry who's passionate about helping people find freedom through frugality. He also writes about wise ways to manage your money at WiseDollar.org.