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Have you ever left the grocery store in tears? (And not because they were sold out of your favorite ice cream that you binge when the kids are asleep.)
You know that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach that you get when stand at the cash register, watching the cost go up as each item is scanned? Especially after you spent so long trying to choose the least-expensive items?
Have you tried to meal plan and stick to a shopping list, only to blow your food budget in the second week of the month.
Hey y’all, Tiffany here.
I’ve been there. I’ve been in your shoes. I’ve felt that feeling of dread as the numbers climb higher and higher as each item from my cart is scanned in.
But you know what? I’ve found the answer.
And the answer is not couponing (which will probably surprise those of you who know that Phillip and I used to own a couponing blog).
And the answer is not a perfect meal plan, or even to just live on ramen noodles.
A couple of months ago, a good friend of mine and I sat down to look at her budget. Her husband is a teacher and they have two growing boys. They were on an extremely limited income, especially with summer vacation approaching and the loss of coaching income. I went through this process with her that I’m going to share with y’all, and it has completely revolutionized her life.
She feels confident and optimistic as she writes her grocery list and enters the store. She then leaves the grocery store feeling empowered and successful.
Last week, she texted me and said, “Thanks so much! You have really turned my world upside down, but it’s great. I feel so much more on top of things.”
She’s not the only one who has told me that.
I’m not telling you these things to brag or show how amazing I am. I’m telling you to show that this works.
So let’s get started!
First, I want to start with a disclaimer: this is not going to be the most fun meal plan in the world. The meals are going to start out being repetitive, bland, and boring.
But as you get more comfortable with the process, you’ll be able to make adjustments that you want to it.
We’re going to walk through an example of how to do this. You do not need to choose these exact meals or items. It’s the process that’s important, not the details.
To begin, either print out this sheet or draw a copy of it on a piece of paper:
We are going to start with focusing on dinners. We’ll get to breakfast and lunches in a bit.
Pick a different meal for each day of the week. This is your official new meal plan. You’re going to eat this same meal plan every single week. Remember, I told you this would get boring.
Now, as you pick your meals, I need you to choose meals where meat is optional. Spaghetti, for example, you can have with or without hamburger or meatballs. This is very important. We’re choosing the bases – the starches/carbs. We’re not starting with meat or fruits/vegetables.
The reason for this is that meat and fruits/vegetables are expensive. They also vary in price based on season and sales. I promise that we will include them, but we will choose them at the end.
For each meal that you chose, break it down into the items that you need to purchase. Take a few minutes to do a quick check on your local store’s website (Kroger, Walmart, etc) and find the regular price of each item.
Your page should now look something like this:
For our meal plan scenario, we’re going to have oatmeal for breakfast each morning.
You can get two 42 oz canisters of Great Value Oatmeal at Walmart for around $5. This should be enough for a week’s worth of breakfast for a family of 4. You could also purchase a 25 lb bag of oatmeal for $33 at Sam’s Club. That should feed your family of 4 for two months.
If you need something a bit more filling, then alternate between a hard boiled egg or a slice of toast with peanut butter.
Lunches are going to be simple, as well: leftovers and PBJ sandwiches. Those are simple, kid-friendly, and inexpensive.
Now that we know what we’re going to need to buy, let’s put it into two different shopping lists.
The first list is going to be your weekly shopping list. Pick one day of the week to do your shopping for your perishables and items that you’ll go through each week.
The second list is going to be what you can purchase in bulk to be less expensive. You will go on the first day of each month, no matter what day of the week it falls on or whether or not it’s your regular shopping day. (Unless it’s Sunday, then go the day after.)
For our scenario above, here are our lists:
Note that we are purchasing oatmeal at Sam’s Club for only $17. That is because each bag costs $33, but it lasts two months. To budget this, I’m going save half of it the first month, then save half the second month. I did the same thing with the rice and the cream cheese.
Now, let’s talk about how much all of this is going to cost. Let’s say that you want to stay within a food budget of $250 per month.
First, subtract your monthly list from the $250. In our scenario, it costs $40 for our monthly amount. That leaves us $210 to spend for our weekly lists.
Next, let’s talk about how much we get each week. Some months you’ll have 4 shopping days, and other months you’ll have 5 trips. To make this as simple as possible, we’re going to say that we have 5 shopping days each month.
$210 split up between 5 weeks gives us $42 per week to spend.
Our weekly list has a $25 value. This means we have an extra $17 per week to spend on meat and vegetables. This is where the variety and sales come into play!
Sometimes this is really difficult to keep track of. When you’re first starting out, it’s helpful to do this part of your budget as cash only and use the envelope method.
Get seven different envelopes (or use an accordion-style coupon organizer) and label them for Weeks 1-5, Monthly, and Stockup. At the beginning of each month, take the $250 out of your bank and divide the cash up into the correct envelopes. This way you can easily see how much you have, how much is left over, etc.
The envelope method will also help you stay within your budget. You can’t go over if you don’t have the money to pay for it right then! If you don’t like having real cash out (in case you lose it), then use Monopoly money or
Meat & Fruits/Veggies
Did you know that most grocery stores have a Manager’s Special section? Each department has an area where food that is getting older and is close to expiration gets marked down.
I can’t tell you how many amazing deals I’ve found in those sections. Ground beef for $0.67 per lb. Boneless, skinless chicken breast for $0.33 per lb. Apples for $0.10 each.
This is how you are going “dress up” your meals and snacks during the week. See what’s on sale (are strawberries in season? Maybe watermelon) and what is marked down at your particular store.
One idea is to buy a bag of frozen broccoli and toss it into the homemade macaroni and cheese.
What are we going to do with the $42 extra if we don’t have a 5th week of the month? That is going to be our “stock up” money!
Sometimes stores will have really good sales on the items that you purchase on a regular basis. For example, one week there may be a good sale on pasta sauce that makes them $0.75 per jar. Use the stock up money to buy 8 jars. This is a great way to build up your food storage for emergencies.
Also, if this is a birthday or holiday month, you could use it to save up for eating out or purchasing something special for a favorite meal.
Once you become a pro (and are really sick of the same meals every single week), you can start to add some variety!
For example, do you want to have Hawaiian Haystacks instead of rice and beans one week. Well, instead of purchasing 2 cans of beans for $3, use that $3 to purchase a few cans of cream of chicken soup instead.
The more you practice this method of food planning and budgeting, the easier it will be to find deals and add variety!