How my family eats on about $40 a week

Friday, July 1, 2016

A few weeks ago, we went spent some time with Adam's family, and during the course of our time with them, the subject of grocery budgets came up.  My sister-in-law and I ended up having a very honest, respectful and open conversation about our respective budgets, why they are the way they are, and how we can improve them.

I love conversations like this, because I feel like they help me understand other people's lifestyles, and where they choose to spend their money.  It also helps me to understand myself better and to be willing to stand up for my habits and personal goals (I used to be a total pushover, and afraid of any sort of confrontation or disagreeing of opinion, no matter how innocent; no longer! Mostly.).

I have though a lot about our conversation ever since, and wondered if a post about this could be helpful.  We are not perfect by any means, and occasionally I sneak in a pint of Haagen-Dazs or whatever, but through lots of trial and error, we have gotten pretty good at staying within our budget.

This is how we make it happen:

We generally spend about $40 a week at the grocery store.  I do already have a cupboard stocked with essentials like flour, sugar, oil and spices, so I only occasionally have to make room for those in the budget.  Those I consider an investment when we move somewhere new.  But after that initial investment, I try to make just about everything work into the weekly budget.

Occasionally I go $5 or $10 over budget, but for the most part, I am pretty good about staying right around $40 a week.  If you look at my 'Living with a CSA'  posts, you can get a good idea of how I use my budget to buy the food we use for dinner.

1. Make a weekly meal plan and shopping list.  I would say an extensive shopping list that plans on spending all the money you have to spend.  $40 isn't a lot, so spend it all on paper before you go to the store.  This way, you won't be tempted by the cracker deals, or other sales.  I also tend to check on sales going on at my local grocery store, but make sure you aren't buying something just because it is on sale. Make sure it is something that will really work into your weekly meals.

2. Eat leftovers for lunch.  This may not work if you have kids at school, but I don't buy lunch foods.  Pretty much ever.  Adam always takes leftovers to work, and I usually eat them at home.  For kids, you could send them with fruit, a tupperware of yogurt, and a peanut butter sandwich made with bread from last night's dinner.

3. Buy food in season.  It is almost always cheaper, and will certainly taste better when it is in season.  If you don't know what is in season, there are loads of websites that will tell you what to buy when.  I like looking at this JBG Organic veggie guide from my CSA.  They don't have everything (mostly things they put in their boxes, which are mainly vegetables), but they give you an idea of what and when things are in season.

4. Spend your money on the things that matter most.  About 10 months ago, I realized that I talked a lot about eating well, but didn't actually do it that much.  That is when we started getting our CSA box (again), and about 6 months ago, we changed our at-home meals to exclusively vegetarian food, to try to increase the amount of vegetables we ate.  I found that once I honed in on the food that I actually wanted to be eating, it was much easier to start making that food a part of our budget and lifestyle.  Maybe good cheese is really important to you, or organic peppers.  Maybe you love buying a lot of fresh fruit.  Whatever it is, start there, and build the rest of your grocery budget around it.

5. Stop buying snack foods.  Snack foods are so much fun.  I love snacking, but anything that comes prepackaged--as convenient as it is--is definitely going to cost more.  Skip the snack foods, and cut up a piece of fruit, make your granola bars, or go without.  You will be amazed at how much money you save from cutting this one thing out.

6. Along with that, skip the single serving stuff.  Yogurts, mini bags of chips, frozen dinners, etc.  If you still need the snacks (trust me, I get it!),  buy the big bag of chips, the 32 oz carton of yogurt, or the box of crackers and package it in a smaller container at home.  Anytime the manufacturer packages it individually for you, it will cost more.

7. Replace most of your meat with grains and beans.  This might be an adjustment for your family, but we have found that we can get a small package of chicken breast or a package of bacon to last a week or two, just by using a little here and a little there.  Often, I will take one chicken breast and put it on a pizza, or in a curry, and then load the dish up with vegetables or beans.  Meat can be really pricey, so subbing it out for other high-protien foods can be a great way to save.

There are tons of delicious recipes on the internet.  If you don't know where to start, check out my CSA posts for ideas. Many of these posts were written during my time as an 'at-home vegetarian.'  I would try to go for one or two meat dishes a week instead of every night.  After a while, you won't miss all the meat.

8. Be willing to sacrifice for the greater good.  This sounds a little ridiculous, but I have found that keeping yourself within your grocery budget means giving up the chips in order to buy milk.  I often want to buy a fun something for me, but know that if I am going to stay within my $40 budget, I really should be buying beans, fruit or milk that will benefit the whole family.

$40 does not go that far at the grocery store, so if I am going to buy something, it isn't really fair if I am the only person that gets to enjoy it.  This is an adjustment in a world of 'me' and instant gratification, but it will be worth it in the long run.  Your wallet and family will thank you for being strong in the face of freshly-made donuts, or Reese's Pieces.

9. Don't waste food you have already purchased.  If you already paid for it, do your best to use it up.  Sometimes you can freeze stuff to make it last longer, or just figure out a way to incorporate it into your meals.  You already paid for it, so you might as well use it.

10. Cut down on or cut out juice and soda.  I am amazed at how much soda and juice some people drink.  I have never been a big juice or soda drinker, so cutting it out wasn't a big deal, but you could save literally hundreds of dollars a year by cutting them out, depending on how much you drink.  Water is way better for you anyway.  If you are getting really bored of plain old water, you can always add some fresh herbs or a lemon slice to spice it up.

11. Make what you can from scratch.  This won't work for every lifestyle, but I make a lot of stuff from scratch.  I often make bread, yogurt, granola, pie dough, pasta and other pantry staples to cut down on the amount of stuff I have to purchase at the store.  I am quite sure I have saved hundreds of dollars over the last 5 years by making a lot of stuff from scratch.

We end up with less preservatives in our food, and much of our food is super fresh because it was made at home.  I haven't saved tons of time, but thankfully I really enjoy cooking, and take great pleasure in serving up healthy and beautiful food to my family.  You may not have time nightly to make these things, but take an hour or two on the weekends, and you will be amazed at the food you can create.

12. Be grateful for what you do have.  Occasionally, I find myself wishing I spent more at the grocery store.  Wishing we kept snack food in the house. Wishing that I could buy fancy cheeses.  Then I remember that we have food to eat.  We have a kitchen to cook in and that we have each other.  In the long run, going with out meat most of the time, or skipping the fancy cheese doesn't matter that much.  Gratitude makes what you have enough (quote by Melodie Beattie)

So now that I have told you a few of my tricks, what tricks do you have for saving money?  Things you can't go without?  Specific questions for me?  Leave them in the comments!  I would love to hear them!


  1. I swear your blog just gets better and better. Thanks!!!

  2. Love this post!

    Ironically, we have something of a goal to spend more at the grocery store. Our reasoning is that we have a general food budget and a tendency to eat out. By trying to spend a majority of that money at the grocery store, we are winding up with more food and more commitment to cook.

    1. Isn't it funny how that happens sometimes? I feel like your route is great! You probably get higher quality food and healthier food, when you are buying it from the store and committing to cook it. I am so glad you liked this post!

  3. Really enjoyed this blog post! We eat mostly vegetarian and it saves so much, but we still end up wasting food sometimes. I hope to get better at using everything I bought each week and this post is very helpful!

  4. Really enjoyed this blog post! We eat mostly vegetarian and it saves so much, but we still end up wasting food sometimes. I hope to get better at using everything I bought each week and this post is very helpful!

  5. Great post! Sometimes convenient food in the house makes our home less stressful and happier, but I've gotten in the habit of spending too much on the expensive stuff!

  6. Hi. Just wondering where abouts you live? I'm in Australia and don't think I could spend only $40 on groceries a week. Are you in America?

  7. Thank you so much for sharing these great tips that may really help anyone to save money at the grocery store while eating healthy. You've got so many amazing ideas. As you are interested in budgeting, I'd like recommend you to read this article on how to budget and save money for your family. You may find there lots of useful information.


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