How to Meal Plan on A Budget: 7 Shortcuts to Slash your $12,000 Grocery Bill

Maybe it's just me, but every time I step into a grocery store I feel like I drop $45 in a matter of minutes and walk out with two measly bags of groceries that last me about 3 days. 

And while I know I really don't need to eat that new cinnamon rolled Cheerios, they just always look so good staring at me on the shelf. 

I say all of this because evidently, I am not the only person who blows a crap ton of money every month at the grocery store.  In fact, USA Today recently released the costs for the average American family of four and their weekly food expenses:

  1. Thrifty food plan, $146 a week; 
  2. Low-cost food plan, $191 a week; 
  3. Moderate-cost plan, $239; 
  4. Liberal plan, $289 a week. 

Ranging from $7,500 to $15,028 annually, with the median falling around the $12,000 mark. Just figuring how to keep a grocery budget of $800 a month can save the traditional family of four $2,400 a year!

So if you're like my wife and I, on a budget but want to still eat healthily, well just keep reading…!

There are 600 grocery carts in the store and I keep picking the one with the front wheel that spins around like a ballerina on speed. -Everyone 

How to meal plan on a budget 101. 

I feel like most people tend to have two goals when it comes to their groceries:

  1. They want to eat healthily.
  2. They want to save money.  

However, sometimes you hear about people making a sacrifice for one or the other. They eat very cheap but not so healthy, or the eat really healthy but it can be pricy. 

Well, I am here to tell you you can do both.

Personally, without kids, but maintaining two somewhat on the go careers (Physical Therapist & Teacher), working our side hustles and keeping an active lifestyle, we are not about to eat rice and beans every meal like some frugal maniacs suggest… nor do we want to do that ever. 

For one, it is not sustainable and in my opinion, rationing your food like it is 1929 again can lead to burnout much faster.  

Agree to disagree, but I still love eating a meals that meet the caloric needs of someone who runs and works out somewhere between 4-6x a week.

With such an active/ on the go lifestyle, my wife and I decided on a $400 a month budget to include all groceries and any occasional meals out. 

The cost per year: $4,800.

We analyzed what we ate and came up with a grocery budget of $350 and an eating out budget of $50 (I share how we did this below). By doing this, we wound up saving close to $4,000 annually compared to when we first met (I would spend $400 in one week).

So how did we manage to slash our grocery budget in half?

We started meal planning on a budget using the 7 tips below. (See also – How to Meal Prep for Beginners)

1. Plan your meals to save big. 

Up until the last few years when millennials figured out they had zero time to work, side hustle and cook dinner – meal prepping or meal planning was a word commonly associated with fitness fanatics.

Now though, planning ahead is essential not only for your health but for your finances too.  Having a plan prior to going to the store in addition to planning out meals will almost ensure you stay within your budget. 

Step 1 when it comes to meal planning on a budget is to first identify some options for each meal of the day. You will want to get used to eating the same meal a few days in a row.

meal plan options on a budget

It also might be smart to get yourself a pressure cooker or an air fryer. There are tons of great recipes on Pinterest my wife finds. Below are some of our go to food options we love: 

2. Shop around

Step 2 when you are meal planning on a budget – shop around! 

Depending on where you live, your selection varies, but the reason to shop at different stores: each offers really good deals in some food categories. 

For example, we personally use a few stores such as Costco, Walmart, Lotte Plaza, Wegmans, and a newer store Lidl. Here are some ideas of what you can get at each store:

Costco:

Great for paper towels, toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and SOME bulk foods. 
Some things, like a bag of 25 apples seem to go bad before you can use them all. We typically get our frozen foods, yogurt, liquid egg whites, ground turkey, and tortillas from Costco. 

Just limit this trip to once a month, maybe twice to refill on a few items. Sometimes all the frills can be distracting, (I once came home with a beach chair so be careful). 

Walmart:

We personally do not like getting any fresh vegetables or meat from Walmart. In our experience, the vegetables are not hardy and the meat I just don’t trust. Walmart is good for canned goods (.14 per can cheaper than Costco) and I will occasionally get things like eggs or cheese.

If we need packaged products we go to Walmart… just be careful as you never know what you might see: People of Walmart.

Lotte Plaza Market:

Vegetables & selection. 3 Bell Peppers, 2 Zucchini, 1 Cucumber, Sweet Potatoes, 2 Onions, Pita bread and a partridge and a pear tree.  On our most recent trip, we walked out with enough vegetables for more than a week and under $10.

The same amount of food, when compared to Wegman's pricing, would have cost us well over $20.

Wegmans:

We used to be huge Wegmans people. It is like they suck you in with their hot bar. But stay away from all the good foods (see #4). They have good beer prices, but we go for the family pack of chicken. $1.87 a pound. Typically we will get 5-6 pounds, which lasts approximately a month.

Cooking about 1.5 pounds at a time, we often freeze most of the chicken for later use (Our most recent trip $11.37).

Lidl:

A store recently opened by us similar to Aldie which is also German, Lidl.  We have pretty much shifted all shopping to this one store, so while shopping around is great, we don't have to anymore.  They meet our freshness needs while still having great prices. 

3.Use rewards cards

cash back cards for grocercies

In my recent post on how to make $600 extra a month I described how to make $62.00 just by using a rewards credit card for groceries only (Here is a list of reward cards). 

3% on a $400 budget will net $12.00 back, paired with reaching spending terms most will give somewhere between $100-150 (we just got the BOA card).

By month two you now have an extra $174.00 to use on groceries just for being thrifty. With anything, if you can’t control your credit card use then just stick to cash each week for groceries!

See Also: Don't Make These Credit Card Mistakes

4.Don’t shop when you're hungry.

In order to prevent impulse buying, never shop when you're hungry like right after work or after the gym.

Caution: Never go to Wegmans when you are hungry. The $9.99 per pound hot food bar can burn a hole in your wallet in a matter of scoops. 

Their processed and prepared foods are extremely over-priced, but they are appealing and appetizing. We never go to the store before dinner. Consumers will tend to impulse buy and target less healthy options.

A slice at Wegmans is $2.99, which is 1.5 pounds of chicken that would feed me for 5 days! 

5. Go off-brand & eliminate processed foods

save money with off brand groceries
When you're kids still want name brand cereal…!

Easier said than done with the processed foods, but it is a great choice for not only your budget but your health as well to stay away from processed foods. 

Processed foods mean more time to make (for manufacture), more packing, therefore more money for you to buy them. 

Go off-brand for just about everything. Dr. Thunder was what we got as kids, Dr. Pepper was for the adults. So I still really do not care if my mustard says Heinz or Great Value, it all tastes the same. 

Shopping tip: Analyze items in terms of % not price. For example the $3 marinade vs the $4 marinade. It is not just $1 more, it is an entire 25% more!!!!!!!

6. Have fun when you're meal planning on a budget!

John Daly loves Walmart

Have fun when you grocery shop & make saving a game. We challenge ourselves to find the best deals and come up with new recipes to eat.

Two, on the go people, we have to meal prep and we realize when we have kids a few things will change. In the meantime, we wanted to stop wasting money at the store because we were lazy.

Sometimes while we are shopping I will put random stuff in the cart. 

Plus you never know when you will meet John Daly!

7. Go shopping 1x a week

I have read that Wednesday is the best day to go shopping.

With the new deals starting and the previous week’s deals ending, Wednesday is great for saving. However, when you have a plan, know where you're going and you use rewards cards, it doesn’t matter to me when you go shopping, but we go once a week. 

7 ways to save

The more frequent we went to the grocery store the more frequently we spent money.

We typically go on Sunday. Sunday marks the day we do most of our planning and half the meal prepping. Wednesday is typically our second meal prep day to get us to Sunday. 

Friday and Saturday are when we will cook a sit-down dinner. Limiting yourself to four trips a month, with let's say $100 to use, you will stay within your budget and cut down on impulse buying.

Budgeting & Meal Planning Takeaway

So there you have it, 7 tips to help you save money, meal plan and still eat healthy.

Try it for a month and see how well you do. After housing and transportation, food is the highest annual cost for Americans. Start hacking your food costs and saving money, all while you are getting healthier.

Be sure to comment below with any tips you have when it comes to saving money with food each month!

~Josh

Question: How do you save money on your grocery bill each month?