Food & Fitness

The Living Healthy in the Real World Guide to Grocery Shopping, Part Five: On a Budget

Be sure to check out the rest of this Grocery Shopping mini-series!

Part One: Preparation to Grocery Shopping

Part Two: Building the Basics

Part Three: Grocery Shopping for the Time-Restricted

Part Four: Where to Shop

Grocery Shopping on a Budget

Now that I’m a homeowner *jumps up and down with glee* (or rather, I will be, in exactly seven weeks), I have to be uber careful about how much money I spend. Food is something that we all spend a lot more money than we expect. For me, it would be reasonable to guess that I spend about $400 a month on food. I want to cut that to about $250, and it’s going to take some careful planning on my part.

When I say that I spend $400 a month on “food”, I mean everything that I consume: this includes groceries from the grocery store, but also any meals I eat outside of the house (going out for dinner with friends, buying tea at a cafe, getting a snack at the school cafeteria, etc), as well as any alcohol I might consume. For the most part I drink very little (at most a glass or two of wine on the weekend), but I like to have a box of wine in the house; that’s $30 right there. If I go out for a drink a couple times a month with friends, that’s easily $5 per drink. And most people drink two or three times what I do, at least, so it’s easy to imagine that most people spend a considerable amount of money on alcohol. If you use tobacco (which I also consider to be a “food item”), then you’re spending that much more.

Groceries also include other odds and ends that we all use: toilet paper, Kleenex, paper towels, tea towels, dish soap, laundry detergent, etc. etc. It all adds up, and most of us can’t really afford to spend extra money. Fear not; we can still live healthy while we’re budgeting our groceries!

1. Before you leave your house, estimate how much you’re willing to spend on groceries for the month. Be honest with yourself or you’ll get a real shock. I advise tracking what you spend on groceries, at least for a couple months, to get a realistic idea of how much you spend. Break down the monthly allowance into a weekly allowance (with some leeway; you never know what might come up to cause you to spend a bit more than you expected). You have your list of items that you need to buy, as discussed in Part One, so now you’ll want to think about how much each of these items cost. Figure out ahead of time the cost of each item.

2. If you find that the cost is simply more than you’re willing to shell out, cut down your list. This is relatively easy to do. I’m not suggesting that you give up milk, eggs, and bread, or that you opt for a bag of Crispy Minis instead of a pile of lettuce, but I am suggesting that you figure out what you need. Do you need a $7 box of Kashi cereal? No, no you do not. Reserve it for special occasions if you really love it. That stuff isn’t healthy; most Kashi products are merely glorified regular cereal. See through the front label and read the ingredient list. I admit, I think that Kashi cereal tastes great, and when I was recently given a gift card to Safeway I totally splurged and bought a box- but it was a rare splurge because the product is neither “healthy” nor cheap. You can make your own tasty cereal at home by buying a bag of no-name brand puffed wheat, making homemade granola, and then combining the puffed wheat with the granola (it gives really nice texture to your cereal), piling it with fruit, and topping it with milk.

A few more items you may consider “exchanging” to stay healthy and stick to your budget:

– Popcorn kernels instead of bags of chips or microwave popcorn

– Salad ingredients (a red pepper, romaine lettuce, roma tomatoes etc) instead of a pre-packaged salad

– Olive oil and balsamic vinegar instead of pre-made salad dressing

3. Following from our last point, start using no-name brands. For the most part, these items aren’t going to be any different than the fancy schmancy brands, except that they’ll be cheaper. There are a few exceptions to this rule, however, such as raisins. I only buy Sunmaid raisins, because a) they don’t have any added oils, which most other brands (including the no-names) do, and b) they are simply bursting with flavour. Make an educated decision about this. I get the cheapest dates I can find because I don’t eat them on their own; I only use them in pureed form for baking purposes. Therefore, I don’t need them to be super plump and fresh and juicy.

4. Compare prices. This is as important as reading ingredient lists if you want to spend your money wisely! Half of the reason I take so much time in the grocery store is because I’m comparing nutrition information, but the other half of the reason is that I’m comparing prices. If you look at the small print on the price label, you’ll find that it will say how much the food costs per 100 grams or another small increment. Go back and forth between foods to check the prices and figure out which is the cheapest.

5. Don’t forget to make use of coupons, club cards, store promotions, gift cards, and any other sales! Buy in bulk the food that will keep for longer. If you have a freezer, you can keep extra food in there to retain its freshness (I always store extra bread and homemade vegetable broth in the freezer). Fresh produce is trickier to buy in bulk because you might be afraid you won’t eat it as quickly. You’re going to have to go with your own judgment on this one. Keep food at the front of the fridge so you remember that it’s there, or plan meals which will include those foods. You can always make a big frittata or soup/stew if your produce is starting to turn.

6. Pick and choose your sacrifices. Organic food is expensive, but if the food you’re eating is particularly susceptible to pesticides, it’s worth the extra expense. Frozen blueberries are pricey but I like to keep them in the freezer at all times because they’re a great addition to smoothies and baked goods; I accommodate for this by buying the cheapest tomatoes and lettuce that I can find, for example.

Ultimately, budgeting does involve a little bit of sacrifice. You have to decide if it’s more important to save a couple minutes cutting carrots or spending a couple more dollars on the pre-cut baby carrots. You have to decide if you want to mix a few ingredients together and allow them to cook rather than spend money on something pre-made. Yes, your time is valuable, but I can almost guarantee that cooking can be pretty much painless once you’ve got everything chopped up and it’s cooking, and also that you probably wouldn’t have been that productive anyways even if you did “save time” by buying pre-cut vegetables (be honest now! If I bought pre-cut veggies, I’d just use that extra time to go on the Internet rather than do school work. It’s good to be aware of how we *really* spend our time ;)).

One last tip: 99% of the time, single-ingredient foods are less expensive than pre-made meals and processed foods. If you buy the ingredients to make soup, for example, per portion it is far cheaper than to buy a package of soup; this is the same for frozen meals and other processed foods. That’s the key to healthy budgeting: think about the cost per portion size rather than the cost per item. A frozen meal might appear to be cheaper than a bunch of vegetables and a chicken breast, but when you add up how many meals you can make out of the items, you’re saving tons of money by buying the separate ingredients and putting them together yourself.

Coming up next is Part Six: Advice for the Reluctant Shopper/Cook!

Living Healthy turns TWO!

That’s right: yesterday was my blog’s birthday! “We” turned two years old. I talked all about how my blog got started on last year’s anniversary, so you can just turn back the clock a year if you’re new to the blog and would like to hear all the details (or just click here). Other than that, I just want to say thank you for being a part of this health community, and for reading and sharing your thoughts here at Living Healthy! Please share in the comments what you would like to see happening here at Living Healthy in the Real World over the next year 🙂


  1. asithi

    Happy Blog Birthday!

    I have to agree that cooking at home is one of the best ways to save on your food budget. It is even cheaper with coupons. I follow a couple of frugal blogs that post grocery deals every day along with coupons. This way, I do not have to match up sale prices with coupons since these bloggers have already done the work for me. Just this one simple thing alone, we are able to save an average of 20% from our weekly grocery bill.

  2. Laura

    Great tips! Something else I learned that is very handy… the price tag on the shelf will often tell you how much something is by quantity. For example… it will say 0.14 per 100g. 14 cents for 100g of the product. A lot of people do not know this and packaging can be very deceiving. I know not ALL grocery stores have this, but usually larger chains provide this info.

  3. Sagan Morrow

    Asithi- That’s an excellent idea. I gotta find some of those blogs!

    Laura- Always good to re-state those things, though 🙂 The packages on food products are appalling.

    Andrea- Can’t go wrong with plenty of produce and lots of cooking!

    Pink Panda- Super poor students unite!

  4. The Candid RD

    Wow, $400 on food per month?!?! Nick and I, combined, spend about $400 (we keep a budget) and I thought THAT was a lot! Of course, we do eat out probably more often than you, maybe? We shouldn’t eat out as often as we do, but sometimes I just don’t want to cook. It’s only about 1 time per week, but that usually provides us with leftovers into the next day.
    Your tips are so fantastic. As far as buying kernals instead of microwave popcorn, it’s REALLY hard for me to do this because I really prefer the microwave popcorn! It makes so much more popcorn, and it takes longer to eat, which I like late at night when I get munchy. They really are so much cheaper though. I like to buy the kernals one time, then the microwaveable the next time. We are buying a house soon too, and like you, we have made goals to spend less. I will take some of this tips into consideration. The processed and pre-cooked meal thing is something I gave up a while ago, and yes, it’s made a HUGE difference!

  5. Sagan Morrow

    Gina- That’s why I pointed out that when I say “money for grocery shopping”, I mean ALL kinds of food- and that includes food eaten when we go out for meals. So just add however much you spend on your meals outside of the house, PLUS any money you spend on coffee etc, and see how quickly it adds up! I’m talking about ALL the money that I spend on ANY kind of food or drink that I consume. If you really prefer making microwavable popcorn, there’s a couple brands which have the only ingredients as popcorn kernels, oil, and salt. It’s better than the rest of the stuff out there, so that’s a useful thing to think about 🙂

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