Super-Charge the Grocery Budget

This time I’ve really done it.

I made the decision maybe three weeks ago that I was going to have to make some serious changes to our grocery budget.  I was going to have to reevaluate what we were eating, make some cuts, be even more frugal — without sacrificing quality.  I was really nervous.  It was a great plan, but…was it feasible?

I’ve done two shopping trips now on the new system.  It’s working.  Better than I even thought it would.  I’m now left scratching my head, wondering what all those “coupon queens” are spending their money on, that they require coupons to lower their budgets.  I get that it’s fun to work the system and save money but really?  It’s too much work, especially if you’re going for real food.  I also think that people who say it’s “too expensive” to eat real food are eating about 25 – 50% fresh food, and the rest processed.  It probably seems more expensive because there are no generics or coupons for fresh items (usually).  But really?  It can be totally affordable.

Here’s the reality (for us):

  • I have $500 per month for our grocery budget, to feed 4 (hungry) people in Ohio (and I’m pregnant).  That’s $250 per 2 weeks.
  • I need this money to cover all my fall preservation, in addition to feeding us now, since I didn’t save anything up over the winter (bad…)
  • I also need this money to cover our future bulk meat purchases (I’ll consider what we have in the freezer now “free” since I’m setting aside money to replace it)
  • $40 immediately goes from this $250 into the “meat” fund
  • $60 immediately goes from the $250 into the “fall preservation” fund
  • We’re buying 1/2 a pig around June.  It will cost about $180.  I’ll have saved $200 – $240 by that time in the “meat” fund.
  • We’ll be kicking off the preservation season with strawberries, at the end of May.  I’ll have $300 saved in the “fall preservation” fund by that time, though I won’t need that much.  I’m growing my own strawberry garden, which might produce 40 – 60 lbs.; so I’ll only need to add an additional 50 lbs. or so.  At around $2/lb., I might need $100.  So the money will keep growing.
  • Once the preservation season is said and done, we’ll try to get the budget down to around $100 every two weeks ($200/month) because we’ll be pulling from the stocked freezer/pantry.
  • Starting around October, $150 every 2 weeks will be going into the “meat” fund
  • We’ll be buying a whole cow again in January, 2012.  By that time, I’ll have saved about $1400.  Not quite enough.  But we’ll see how we want to handle that purchase (might go for a bulk ground beef purchase instead of getting all the steaks; or we might reduce the budget further once we’re eating the preserved food)

That is the current plan.  So I have now only $150 to work with every 2 weeks for our “regular” groceries.  For the most part, this also covers pet needs and toiletries. I also have this in my pantry:

  • 1 lb. each black, red, white navy, pinto, garbanzo, and “mixed” beans (these are cheap and easy to replace)
  • 1 lb. sucanat
  • 3 jars tomato puree
  • 6 – 8 jars apple pie filling (last year’s canning)
  • 6 – 8 jars salsa (last year’s canning)
  • 1 lb. coconut flour
  • 1/2 54 oz. jar coconut oil
  • 1/4 liter olive oil (needs replaced next shopping day)
  • 5 lbs. of unbleached white flour (used occasionally as a thickener, or to stretch the almond flour if I need to)
  • 4 lbs. of sprouted wheat (not ground — I sprouted them myself)
  • 2 lbs. of soaked oats (I soaked/dried them myself)
  • 50 vanilla beans + rum (to make lots of extract!)

Not a ton.  Nothing in major bulk.  And nothing costs so much that it isn’t easily replaceable each week as needed.  The tomato puree will be the hardest to replace, as it costs around $30 for a case.  I buy a case every 2 months, when Tropical Traditions offers free shipping.  Look for that around the beginning of May!

On yesterday (Friday)’s trip, I spent just $110, split among 4 stores.  I have $10 more in my wallet, plus $30 I left in the bank for farm food (they just set it up so we can pay in advance via Paypal!).  This is less than what I had thought I’d need to spend, since a lot of my meat stash (other than the beef) is running out.  But I assume since it worked out this week, it’ll work out next week, too. 

I’m planning to try to keep $20 or thereabouts “extra” this time, so that I can stock up next time on meat again.  When we do the farm run ourselves, we get 25% off our order.  So I’ll be buying whole chickens, ground pork, etc. at that time!

So what did I buy with my $110?

  • 2 lbs. celery (org.) — $2.50
  • 2.5 lbs. romaine lettuce (org.) — $5
  • 1.25 lbs. maple syrup — $6
  • 1 lb. raw honey — $4
  • 1 lb. frozen spinach (org.) — $2
  • 2 12-oz. bags frozen strawberries (org.) — $4
  • 1 lb. almond meal — $4
  • 2 bags corn chips (org.) — $5
  • 2 lbs. yellow onions — $1.50
  • 18 bananas — $3.50
  • 2 lbs. carrots (org.) — $2
  • 1 lb. frozen pineapple — $1.50
  • 1/2 gal. orange juice — $2
  • 1 loaf sprouted bread — $3
  • 1.5 lbs. frozen mango — $2.50
  • 0.75 lb. asiago cheese (raw) — $4.50
  • 1 4-oz. can green chiles — $0.75
  • 1 2-oz. bottle ground cumin — $2
  • 1 32-oz. bottle grape juice (org.) — $3
  • 10 lbs. potatoes (org.) — $8
  • 1 lb. cheddar (raw) — $6
  • 3.5 lbs. wheat berries (org.) — $3
  • 1 lb. GF pasta — $4 (sale price!)
  • 2 lbs. Amish butter — $6
  • 1 12-oz. bag chocolate chips (mini) — $2.50
  • 3 lbs. frozen peas — $3
  • 3 lbs. frozen broccoli — $2.50
  • 5 lbs. white sugar — $2.75 (for kombucha)
  • 2 large canteloupes — $3
  • 1 bottle chili powder — $0.50
  • 1 44-oz. bottle ketchup — $2 (not org, but no HFCS)
  • 1 16-oz. container sour cream — $2
  • 2 bottles Dawn liquid dish soap — $2
  • 16 lbs. cat litter — $5
  • 100-pack clothespins — $2

I also spent $3 on “splurges” — a couple snacks and candy.  Tee hee.  (My son was throwing a massive fit because he was hungry, so I consider the Larabar I bought him well worth it.)  The candy I wouldn’t have bought but I was stressed (that was my last store) and it was a great price.  Okay, it was peanut butter cups, 8 for $1.  But I’ll keep them in the freezer and eat them just a bit at a time, not finish them all this weekend!

Note that “org.” = “organic.”  Anything on the dirty dozen list was purchased organically.  Anything that isn’t, wasn’t.  Broccoli and peas are not (they’re actually really low on the pesticide list, just like onions).  I could spend twice as much on them to buy organic, but why?  And we go through so much that it would really add up.  In the summer when the farmer’s markets are out and I can get a great price on fresh, organic stuff — that may change.

As you can see, in very few places did I actually compromise.  We could only consider a couple spices and the non-organic produce “compromises” but they’re really not bad at all.  The chocolate chips are just a “fun” extra that could be skipped.  But, we like to add a tiny bit to ice cream or almond flour muffins and etc. for a special “treat.”  I buy minis so we get lots of chocolate in each bite for a very tiny amount of total chocolate. 

A note on the sour cream — no, it’s not organic.  But the only ingredient is “cultured cream” and frankly, that’s actually safer than a lot of my organic options around here.  It’s real sour cream, not fake stuff made with skim milk and thickeners (yup, even the “full fat” organic stuff is usually made that way).

Also, this could easily be made grain-free by skipping the wheat berries and swapping the pasta for spaghetti squash.  That would actually save you money.  You could easily swap out potatoes for white navy beans, broccoli, celery, peas, or any of the other veggies I use for about the same price to make it GAPS-friendly.  I’ve focused heavily on peas, broccoli, carrots, celery, and potatoes because they are the cheapest veggies I can buy right now. (You’ll see in my meal plan how this plays out, but it’s easily adaptable since we don’t have grains in too many places.)

Farm Order:

  • 3 gallons raw milk ($15)
  • 3 lbs. chicken feet ($6)

I actually have several dozen eggs from my last trip, or I’d probably buy those instead of chicken feet.  They’re $3/dozen.  They’re so fresh when we get them — usually laid that day, or the day before — that they last a long time, so I can stock up when I do trips myself.  We rely heavily on eggs in ice cream, smoothies, and baking.

3 gallons of milk every 2 weeks is my standard milk order.  Soon, if I can, I’ll be buying extra milk, or just extra cream, if available.  I’ll be stockpiling butter for the winter (that deep yellow, yummy, nutrient-dense spring butter!).  I may dip into the “fall preservation” fund for that, since it *is* for preservation, not right now.

It’s important to note that I’m using an envelope system for this.  I pull out $220 in cash (leaving the $30 for the farm since I know I’ll pay that online).  I put my meat and preservation cash directly into envelopes and put them away.  I only go into the store with $120 in cash.  If I don’t have it, I can’t spend more.

Now, if you want to see how I’m using all this stuff…head over to my meal plan and check it out!

How do you save money on groceries?  How much do you spend?

Comments

  1. says

    I live out in the northwest and I was wondering if you or anyone else might know the cheapest source of coconut oil? I've got a large family and not a large budget. We do really well over all but I want to get better quality oils, which seem to be difficult on the budget.

  2. Marta says

    I live in a condo and have no hope for an extra freezer. I wish I could buy a whole animal or do some fall preservation, but it's not possible. I also cannot do a garden. Right there my cost is going much higher. I pay about $20 for a small chicken, $7 for milk, $7 for 1lb of grass-fed meat etc. I'm jealous of your prices! I love to shop at farmers market, but it's always more expensive, even in season.

  3. Sara says

    Are you willing to share the names of stores you shop for local readers? Would love to know where you buy honey, $4/lb for raw honey is amazing!

  4. ModernAMama says

    Sara,

    Raisin Rack. :) Honey and maple syrup are cheapest there! I want to say it's really like $3.79/lb. for raw honey and $4.95/lb. for maple syrup. I haven't found it cheaper anywhere. Trader Joe's is most of the rest of that! (And some Walmart thrown in on the non-organic stuff.)

  5. Amanda says

    Good post. I like to see how others spend money on food. You have some excellent prices where you live! I've been hoping for about 2 years now to purchase our meat in bulk. We'll see if I can convince my husband to go for it this year!

    I see that you use about 1.5 gallons of milk a week. How often do you all drink it (I.e. only at dinner)?

  6. ModernAMama says

    Amanda,

    Until recently we mostly used it for cooking, and I'd make yogurt and ice cream. Drinking it is rare. Lately we've been drinking more, and making a LOT of ice cream (a batch a day…but it's less than 1/4 c. maple syrup to 4 c. milk, so…I don't worry about the sugar much!). We will probably need to increase this to 2 gallons per week now, for this reason. The kids also will go through a lot of yogurt popsicles (homemade yogurt + fruit) in the summer.

  7. Catherine Clark says

    A small garden is possible, even in a condo. If you have a balcony, consider container gardening. Even a large window would work, if you are creative enough. We have a city lot in Chicago and I started out container gardening. I now have raised beds (3) and hope for more. You would be surprised what you can grow in containers! If you know someone with a freezer, consider going in with several people for a whole cow like we used to when we went to Indiana. Organic Gardening magazine online, Mother Earth News online all have great articles about vertical gardening, gardening on a roof, etc. Don't rule out anything without thinking it through. If you have even a small yard and children, involve them in the growing process. Check out a community garden with others. The possibilities are endless!

  8. Marta says

    One more question – can you share with us why you decided to reitroduce the grains? Our family is considering going grain-free so I'm really interested in this topic. Thanks!

  9. says

    I'm loving these posts on grocery budget. I'm working on forming a budget (again…), but what I always have trouble with is the bulk purchases and things I order online. I'd love to stick to the cash envelope system, but that doesn't work very well when I order food online or write a check for things…I guess I can stop writing checks, most of the time, but how do you work out your online purchases? Do you just keep track somewhere of the money you've "set aside"? I don't know if I'm that organized….any advice would be appreciated!

  10. ModernAMama says

    Joanna,

    I mostly use envelopes to keep my money set aside. If it's in my wallet (or even the main bank account), I WILL spend it…I know that. We are also considering opening a separate bank account for money that we are "saving up" for bulk purchases. If, though, I know that I am going to buy something really soon (like the strained tomatoes from Tropical Traditions), I will just leave that amount in my account and then buy it as soon as I am ready. It's more the 'long term' money I have trouble with! Still working on that, but probably a separate bank account for it will solve that problem. (But we can open as many accounts as we want for free.)

  11. says

    This is so wonderful of you to share! I'm new at this whole foods deal, and learning so much from other ladies who have done the 'legwork' for me if you will.

    By the way, for the sour cream, have you tried plain Greek yogurt? I tried it instead of sour cream tonight and truly could not tell the difference.

    Thank you again!

    • says

      You can also make a Greek-style yogurt by draining some of the whey off of regular store-bought or homemade yogurt! Just dump the (plain) yogurt into cheesecloth (or I use a clean hankerchief) and set in in a colander inside another bowl and leave it for a couple of hours or till it’s to the consistency you want it! It’s especially cheap if you use homemade yogurt and you can also use the whey you drain off for soaking/lacto-fermenting other foods.

  12. Colleen says

    Did you meal plan ahead of time? I'd love to see the meals that match this budget. Thanks for sharing!

  13. Allie says

    I'm continually amazed at how many "frugal" websites that I find that I don't consider frugal. If I could afford $500 a month, I wouldn't need to be frugal. Wow! for 4 people, really. That's half our income. Apparently I"m doing okay on my own.

  14. Rose says

    I would love to know where you shopped at (you mentioned 4 stores) to get those prices! I’m also in Ohio.

  15. says

    Hey, I was just wondering…you mentioned in one of your grocery budgeting posts that you could cut your monthly grocery budget down to $300 and I was just curious what changes you would make in order to do this? Our monthly budget right now is $290 and we are eating JUNK, and something has got to change! Especially since I’m pregnant with my second and feeling horribly run down all the time :( I was thinking that if you can manage to feed your family all or mostly real food on $300 a month then surely I could make some drastic improvements…Lol! And on the saving for future purposes thing, I have found Mvelopes.com to be a huge help! You can put cash in the “envelopes” online and it just stays there till you spend it rather than disappearing at the end of the month!

    • Kate Tietje says

      Check through the rest of the series. We do a lot of foods like brown rice, potatoes, carrots, onions, celery, stock (soups), and things like that. We focus heavily on the cheapest possible real food items. I buy tons of bananas and rarely any other fruit unless it’s in season. I recently bought over 30 lbs. of blueberries because they were in season. I’ll buy a lot of apples (like 100+ lbs.) when they are in season and super cheap, and I’ll make applesauce and can it. I’ll do the same with pears, diced pears. We don’t really eat much fruit except what I’ve canned or frozen myself, and this is a huge expense for many families. I buy lots of greens when they are in season and cheap and have salads daily, but not so much in the winter. I buy lots of bulk dry beans and cook with those — add them to salads, soups, with rice and meat, etc. They can stretch food a lot. There are other ideas in there.

      I can’t do it for quite this small amount anymore. I’m closer to $350. But, I have three kids with big appetites now and prices are a bit higher than last year. Still that’s not bad.

  16. Mariandi Bonthuys says

    Dear Kate! Can you come to my house to help me organize my house, meals, finances/budget and everything else!! I don’t no where to start, started baking our own bread, making our own cleaning products (still figuring out what works and what does not)…I do struggle a lot with stains and removing the stains :(.
    How do I go about to make it look as easy as you do!!

    Kind Regards,

    • says

      One step at a time. :) And remember I mostly post my successes, not my failures! This isn’t so representative of my daily life. We have ups and downs just like everyone else, and work on things one step at a time too.



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