I Challenged Myself to Only Spend $100 per Week on Groceries … And I Did It!

Image source: Thinkstock
Image source: Thinkstock

We got home from vacation last week, after spending a beautiful eight days in Maui, Hawaii, and I woke up the next morning with a feeling of dread:

We’d spent too much money having too much fun.

While we paid the price for a small condo with a full kitchen with the intent of cooking many of our meals at the villa, when push came to shove and I received one amazing recommendation after another for great restaurants on the island, we threw caution (and our checkbook) to the wind and spent way more on food than we had planned to. On top of our vacation, we knew we had some bills coming due and the holidays just around the corner, so I decided that the easiest way to save a bit of money was to scale back on our food budget, which at this point was pretty much nonexistent.

I often shopped for what looked good, sounded amazing, and fulfilled a current craving that week, often dismissing my larger-than-life grocery bills as “research” for my column here and my Instagram account. I knew those days needed to end so that we could one day have enough saved to send our kids to college, and so for the month of October, I’m going back to the start and reenacting a $100 per week grocery budget.

Whether you look at the current USDA cost of spending on meals or just do a random survey online, the average cost of groceries varies from $50 per week all the way up to $200 per week. I always find it fascinating to see what the world eats and spends on groceries, as Time often recaps in a series of photos. Living in Southern California where fresh produce is abundant year round as well as fresh, local meats, I knew that with some due diligence and dedication, I could go back to my old grocery budget for at least a few weeks. Plus, I already knew all the best practices for saving money and budgeting a grocery bill, I just hadn’t been doing a very good job practicing those habits.

Here’s a recap of how I’ve been able to manage a $100 grocery budget for the past two weeks, buying 80% organic products, including dairy, meats, and produce, and how I’ll try to stay close in line to this budget going forward …

1. Meal Plan

We hear it time and time again: The best way to be a successful home cook is to plan ahead. But not only does planning ahead lead to dinner-time success, it also tremendously helps to save us money. When we make our grocery list a strict representation of the meals we’ll be eating for the week, we’re more likely to stick with that list and skip unnecessary trips to the store for forgotten items or buying fresh items we don’t end up eating that go to waste. This saves us time, frustration, and money, in both grocery bills and gas, in the long run.

Pro-tip: When planning your meals, sketch out a rough list of breakfast and lunch items as well as more detailed dinner items. Breakfast and lunches often don’t need to be as detailed since we often throw these together on the fly with no recipe, but it does help to make sure we have enough ingredients on hand, including milk for cereal in the morning or lunch meat for the kid’s school lunches. In addition, plan for a night of leftovers, and if eating-out factors into the budget, one night for that as well.

2. Keep an Organized Calendar, Fridge, and Pantry

Stay with me here, because yes, I know, we are all busy moms and dads with houses to run and families to keep in line. Meal planning and being organized do take extra time, especially in the beginning when you’re getting used to a new routine, but you’ll have to sacrifice a bit of time to save money; it’s just a simple fact of life. It’s just like shopping around for the best deal on auto-insurance or taking better care of our things so they last longer; efforts in saving money always require a bit of well, effort. With that said, try to do weekly purges of the fridge and bi-weekly pantry clean-outs so you can see what you have on hand and what you need to add to the list. A disorganized pantry is my nemesis after one too many times wasting money on ingredients I already had on hand. Save yourself the headache and some money by keeping your kitchen areas relatively organized.

Pro-tip: Keep your calendar organized and take a glance at it when planning meals for the week. This will allow you to plan according to your schedule, keeping dinner on busy kid’s activity days simple and taking into account nights when you may have plans with friends or a party, allowing you the ability to plan for one less meal.

3. Set Reminders

Considering you plan to cook your meals with items you may have frozen or with longer cooking times, set yourself reminders on your phone or put up sticky notes around the house instructing you to defrost the meat or put the chicken in the oven. Nothing destroys dinner plans (and has you calling for take-out) quicker than forgetting to defrost meat or allowing your meal the proper time to cook.

4. Don’t Shop When You’re Hungry

Everything looks more appealing and sounds more delicious when it’s close to lunch time and you’re starving. If you’re strapped for time (as most of us are) and you’ll be doing your grocery shopping on your lunch break, pack a snack to munch on before or while you shop so you don’t add in extra foods you don’t need, breaking your budget.

5. Shop Alone

If possible, try and shop alone or at least with just the younger baby who can’t beg/coerce you into buying all the snack food! I know this is often easier said than done if you don’t have childcare, but I try to avoid bringing my older kids to the store with me at all costs because it’s just easier and cheaper overall. What can I say, I’m a sucker at the grocery store, and by observing other moms shopping habits over the years with kids in tow, I know I’m not the only one.

6. Stick to the Plan

Try not to get too distracted by the yummy treats outlining the aisles of the store, or if you’re a sucker for produce like I am, stick to the list and don’t get overzealous on fresh seasonal produce. Remember, it will only last so long, and there’s only so much one can eat.

7. Don’t Get Exotic

These days, especially if you live in a major metropolitan area, you have the pick of the litter when it comes to getting fancy, specialty grocery items at even your most basic of stores. From Himalayan sea salt to $30 jars of almond butter, you’re going to have to reign it in and view these items for what they are: luxury items and not common staples of a reasonable family budget. Sure, I love raw, organic, hemp seeds just as much as the next health-food nut, but when I’m trying to save money, I just can’t justify tossing those things in my cart when we need the basics like quality eggs and organic milk.

8. Slow-Cook It

A few weeks ago I busted out my ugly, green enamel crockpot that we received as a wedding gift over 15 years ago and started using it religiously. At first, it was out of necessity because of a crazy kids sports schedule, but I soon started realizing that the crockpot has another advantage in the kitchen: It can save me a good amount of money. Because of the method of cooking in a crockpot, recipes often call for simpler, less expensive ingredients. Cuts of meat that hold up well under the slow cooker are usually tougher, leaner, and therefore cheaper, and dishes like soups and pastas, which can feed a lot of people with a lot of relatively simple and thrifty ingredients, are standard staples in any crockpot cookbook.

9. Shop Your Own Pantry and Freezer

A common problem of any home cook who enjoys cooking and experimenting is that sooner or later, you wind up with a pantry and freezer of unused groceries. Last month I cleaned out my freezer and discovered that I had over 40 pounds of awesome, locally raised, organic meats sitting in there, just waiting to be enjoyed, and still I kept buying more! My pantry looked pretty much the same, with jars and bags of several different types of flour and a variety of grains, dried beans, and rices on hand that could easily rival any grocery store. So before I brought even more food into our home, I challenged myself to only cook with meats I already had on hand and to center my dishes around dried goods that were currently in our pantry. This has been instrumental in helping me stay within my $100 grocery budget.

10. You Can Always Eat Less Meat

The average American’s meat consumption is at a record high, consuming about 50 pounds more meat annually than we did back in the 1950s. While meat and poultry are staples of our diet, it doesn’t have to be staples of our everyday diet. The quickest way I saved money these past two weeks was using meat I already had on hand and using less of it when cooking, as well as using no meat at all on weekly dishes. I try to pencil in at least two meatless dinners each week and try to make most of our breakfast and lunches meatless. Meat, whether it’s organic, antibiotic-free or just conventional, is expensive, with the average price for beef coming in at $5.99 per pound. If we ate just two vegetarian dinners each weeknight, eliminating roughly three pounds of meat, we’d save ourselves at minimum $1,000 annually. Now imagine if you skipped the bacon at breakfast time and the diced chicken on your lunch salad? Small changes do indeed add up.

While I’m not sure I’ll be able to maintain this $100/week grocery budget indefinitely, especially as our stockpiles in the freezer and pantry dwindle and our kids continue to grow, I do know that this $100 challenge has made me more mindful of how thoughtlessly I was spending our grocery money, and it’s reinforcing good practices for the long term.

How much do you spend on groceries each week, and what are some of your best tips for staying within budget?

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